A few days into the new year, most of us have already begun to equivocate about our resolutions. Already they seem overly ambitious, perhaps jut a bit unrealistic, or at any rate less important then we once thought. It’s time to retreat, retrench, and rationalize. If we don’t reach the goal, we can always just lower our expectations. Why do we go through this every year? What causes us always to aim high and then, inevitably, fall short? It seems like a built-in pattern, as if we had to set ourselves up. What a desperate way to begin a new year, or a new decade!
Thoreau remarked, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” What wisdom, then, can we find in understanding failure, or rather our obsession with it and with its opposite, success? In the context of plans and resolutions, failure means not attaining your goals. It means you didn’t get what you wanted or do what someone thought you should. Success mean the opposite, of course: you fulfilled expectations, accomplished the mission, made the grade, cleared the bar, came in first. But failure means you didn’t medal; your reach exceeded your gasp; you fell short; you missed the boat; you blew it; you hit the wall; you tanked, caved, collapsed, ate it, bought the farm, shot and missed, took a bath.
We have, it seems, all sorts of vivid metaphors for failure, almost as many as we do for getting drunk or having sex. But what about success? The metaphors seem paler and less abundant. We say that someone arrived, made it, scored, nailed it, but what else? We brood on what we fear, and we certainly fear failure. We don’t fear success nearly as much, though there are good reasons why we should. Fat cats are not nimble. Too much safety can make one slothful, complacent, and dull, which are hardly virtues in a world where one needs to be supple and alert. The deeper the rut, the harder it is to change course. The deeper the foxhole, the harder it is to climb out.
Success accustoms us to getting our own way and therefore breeds intolerance, impatience, self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement and a lack of compassion. Greed and envy wait hungrily in the wings. In this regard, success is the enemy of virtue.
Failure, in contrast, breeds self-confidence, because you must overcome shame and despair in order to go on. You are thrown back upon inner resources. You have to reinvent yourself. You become aware of your own network of trusted friends and supporters, with their honesty and generosity. You begin to realize what really counts in life, that tough love is the only durable kind.
Because failure accustoms you to letting go, it breeds resistance to addictions. It forces you to deal with injustice and uncertainty and the loss of control. Once you’ve lost a job, you don’t fear it so much the next time: it may still hurt, but at least you’ve been there before. You know the way out. God is not against suffering. We should embrace our failures as opportunities to learn. Pain is, or can be, a tonic to the imagination. And yet how many of us, who claim to be teachers, really want to learn? Maybe that’s why we are so desperately drawn by the sweet smell of success.