As a young woman, I struggled to find myself and my place in the world. I dropped in and out of college, held more jobs than I can remember, and moved to and from various exotic locals. I tried marriage—and divorce. Mostly, I lived in a whirl of confusion about who I was and how I would make my way—and I worried a lot about ending up a failure.
Nothing I attempted seemed to satisfy me. I watched my friends successfully pursing their ambitions, while I languished in feelings of inadequacy for the better part of a decade. At the time, I could not know that my experience with failure would give me exactly what I needed to eventually succeed. Not only did that protracted period of frustration inspire me to create something entirely new, suffering the pain of repeated failures helped to humanize me, maturing my capacity for compassion.
Today, those early failures seem so long ago it’s almost as if they happened to someone else. In hindsight, I have come to believe that failure, not success, is perhaps, what life is all about. Success never seems to last anyway. But failure, that is the surest thing. As long as we continue to challenge ourselves, blunders and miscalculations are inevitable. In a larger sense, whatever our accomplishments and attainments—all will be washed away as each of us is claimed by life’s inevitable passing.
Failure is not always weakness.
Of course, many of us have struggled with the kind of failure that results from our own internal deficiencies—giving up before we’ve given our best, retreating in fear from an important challenge, failing to live fully because we have compromised our authentic nature, or running away from the struggle with a difficult truth.
But failure can often befall us even as we are trying to succeed. This kind of failure occurs—despite our best efforts—in pursuit of a cherished dream or intangible longing. In such situations we apply great intention, sacrifice, and energy to no avail. Examples of heroic failure can include: Training for years to make the Olympic team, and then losing the race by a fraction of a second; starting a company that becomes successful only to find yourself being forced out by the Board of Directors; doing everything you can to earn the love and respect of a beloved parent, boss, or spouse and, still, never receiving the attention, recognition or love you seek and deserve.
The paradox of failure.
Defeat is a kind of failure that cuts so close to the bone we feel eviscerated at a core level. Defeat sends us to the bottom of our being where we encounter the most dreaded, and paradoxically, the most spiritually invaluable, of all human experiences—shame, inadequacy, hopelessness, helplessness, meaninglessness and feelings of loss. It’s the kind of experience that can send us reeling into confusion as we ask ourselves: ”Where do I go from here?”
When we bottom-out emotionally, it may be difficult to recognize what a blessing this is in disguise. But once we have put forth our best efforts and fail to get what we wanted—or, even worse, we get exactly what we wanted only to discover that it fails to satisfy as we’d hoped or imagined—our real life can begin in earnest.
Failure can open the door to authenticity.
Encountering what spiritual anthropologist Joan Halifax calls, holy failure, can open the doors of perception to what really matters in life. Failing to accomplish an important goal, or series of goals, can frequently reveal a more authentic self whose purpose has been obscured. However uncomfortable the experience, feeling drawn into a spiral of defeat is one of the ways the soul calls attention to itself.
Holy failure challenges our fantasies about our ability to direct our lives and control the world. It is about encountering what we most fear—the limitations and messy imperfections of life and the myriad of ways we don’t measure up. But the potential transforming effects of failure on our lives can radically alter our relationship to the world. Many of us know people who found their values redefined, their energies redirected, and their relationships deepened because they invested themselves in something that didn’t work. How about you? How has failure positively shaped your life in ways you hadn’t expected?
How do we respond to failure?
How we respond to failure becomes a life-defining question: Will we allow ourselves to be nurtured or diminished by our encounters with failure? Can we stay with the experience long enough to reinvent ourselves at a core level? Do we have the inner strength to cut our losses and change course if that is what is required? Will we allow ourselves to process the impact of our defeats so that life becomes something less superficial and infinitely more meaningful on a daily basis?
Finding a balance between the heroic desire for power and success and the intimate underworld that holy failure can help us contact becomes the hallmark of the seeker’s path.
Do you struggle with feelings of defeat and disappointment?
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