On Failure

I may be bad / But I’m perfectly good at it. (Rhianna)

I’ve been thinking about writing a failure-themed post for a while now. The fact that I’ve failed to do so until now is perhaps (ha ha) appropriate.

I first had the idea when I listened to this radio episode on failure. I was so captivated by what I heard that I sat in my car in the Albertson’s parking lot for ages, not wanting to get out and go to the bank. That same week in my writing class, someone wrote about being late to their business meeting for the same reason. I guess there was just something about discussing Failure with a capital ‘F’ that really struck us both to the chord. To me it feels connected to the fact that we were both women–I dunno, I feel like us ladies (especially us hard-working, unusually bright, driven and precocious ladies) usually have a lot more cultural pressure on us to “succeed” (whatever the heck THAT means) in society. All those should-have, could-have, would-haves running constantly through our heads like background noise, like the buzz of mosquitos in a dirty ditch.

To Fail. What does it mean to fail? I would never say that I have not failed in my life, but as part of my whole trying to think more positively, be nicer to myself thang, dwelling on that isn’t something I want to do right now. One of the things said on the radio show that I really liked a lot was the discussion of failure as “information.” As in, rather than seeing our failures as something crippling and destructive, we can instead take them as something useful, from which something can be gleaned and used.

Another section of the radio show that was interesting to me was the part in which one of the psychology professors from my beloved alma mater talked about her research about educational motivation. She specifically talked about how in many children are better equipped to cope with failure than adults, due to their “cognitive deficiencies” that make it harder for them to understand or see things from another person’s perspective. I totally buy this. It makes “cognitive deficiency” sound so delicious.

There just seems something so delicious and wonderful and appealing sometimes to me, in a dark secret silent way: the idea of Failing Just Utterly and Completely. I think this is one of the reasons that I enjoyed reading Girl, Interrupted so much. Going to a mental institution just seems to be the biggest way of saying “I give up. I can’t take it anymore. I’ve just HAD it. THIS IS IT FOR ME!!” I have a strange twisted fantasy about a mental institution being a sort of quiet place where you can futz about and just generally be left to yourself to be alone and chill out and recuperate for a while, not dealing with the world at all. (Trust me, I know that this is TOTAL fantasy.) But I think that’s why I find such pleasure in reading books in this genre, such as The Bell Jar and Prozac Nation. In high school I was obsessed with all books dealing with schizophrenia: When Rabbit Howls, Sybil, you name it. It’s like escapism, almost, for me, imagining How Bad Things Can Get, because in some strange way, a part of my brain refuses to accept that will ever to happen to me. Is this why the idea of crashing and burning can seem strangely liberating?

As I’ve been typing this up the males in my family have been moaning and groaning, watching the Lakers lose again to Dallas at home, thus going down 0-2 after two home games. Talk about failure! Still, I was heartened the other day by a list I found in my high school journal, listing the Pros and Cons of Life. In the Pros column, I wrote “am curious to know where the Lakers go from here.” Curious indeed. Or, like my sister always said, “There’s always the new Tori Amos album to look forward to.”

Yup, life is worth living, uncomfortable information and all… I thought about failure some more while re-reading Melissa Banks The Wonder Spot. The failures of Sophie (the main character) throughout the novel are just one of the reasons of why I love this book so much, and count it among one of my favorites. There is something I just find so endearing and refreshing about her dogged personality, getting up and going at it, year after year after year in her crappy copywriting job and crappy relationships. And yet she succeeds in finding a powerful kind of happiness at the end, or as she calls it, “my night in shining armor.” The first time I read this sentence, lying on my stomach on my crappy dorm bed in a British university, it sounded like the promise of something big and wonderful. What I think this book is about now, upon re-reading it, is about Sophie being able to find happiness and satisfaction according to HER terms, not her father’s, not her brothers, not her female best friend’s or employers. Or as she puts it in the final passage: “Right now I am having the life I want, with my dollar to spend and dinner to comeWe will try everything on the menu… We’ll find a parking space a few blocks from my apartment on Tenth Street, and we’ll pick up milk and tomorrow’s paper. We will undress and get into bed.” 

Such is the happy life, warts and all.

Hey, I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I failed as much as I have succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.

(“Jerry Maguire.”)

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