Failure is Our Shadow

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I remember the church in fourth grade, minutes before the spring musical, shaking as I contemplated singing my solo in front of the growing crowd. I searched my brain for a good reason to back out, and found nothing except the pervasive fear.

St. Bernard’s Catholic Church: The smell of incense, the stained glass, the families filling the pews, their indistinct words echoing in the high empty spaces of the tower—no steeple here. Closer by, I heard sympathetic sounds coming from a boy named Colin who had wanted the solo in the first place and smelled blood. The teacher sensed my anxiety, and this was past the days when Catholic school was cruel. So she offered mercy—Colin and Ryan would sing with me, the solo becoming a trio, the awful pressure divided by three. I saw the glowing exit, and I stepped through gratefully. I walked off the altar to tell my mother.

Before I got there, I felt something unpleasant and claustrophobic settling inside me—failure. I had felt it before. I was expecting it.

Like it or not, I had been born someone who tries. Someone who wants to achieve, someone who wants to win. And I had been pushed further by my mother, a natural impulse kindled. That’s why I had fought for the solo in the first place, why it meant so much. I was not a great singer, but I had turned into the best singer in that small class for those few auditions. This was known turf—you see the prize, you attack, you put yourself in unfamiliar situations and let your future self deal with the consequences. In a bigger school, or with just one really talented boy around me, it never would have happened. But here we were—a small pond, and me the big fish.

I went to my mom because I wanted reassurance, so I thought, and I knew I wasn’t going to get it. Deep down, the stakes were clear—fear had become tangible, and I had backed down. The retreat brought relief, but the relief was terrible. It was the relief of a coward, and already I was seeing life in these extreme terms.

I told her I wouldn’t be singing alone. She expressed some token sympathy, and then got down to business. I can’t remember the exact words, but they don’t matter, because I had already been saying them to myself. She only gave me a suggestion—she didn’t need to push. It’s your choice, but you’ll be disappointed in yourself. I felt angry at her for telling me the frustrating truth, and knew it was really anger at myself. In a sullen rage I marched back to the teacher and insisted that the solo was mine.

Are you sure? Yes. I’m adamant. Sorry, Colin.

My hands were shaking. My voice was probably shaking. But I carried the melody well enough, singing the woes of a schoolboy who has decided to reject girls because they were a distraction. (“It would be such a crime/to waste my time/on anything so unimportant.”) Today, I can find exactly one reference to those lyrics online, from the website of an elementary school preparing for its own musical in 2009. I don’t know the title of the play, or my character’s name, or who wrote it. If not for Jackson Elementary School, I might start to believe that I had dreamed the whole day.

I felt jubilant afterward. My mother told me I was the best one on stage, and I’m sure it wasn’t true, but it felt like I had conquered a demon. Today, I still suspect that this moment, and others like it, were critically important in setting the patterns of my life.

I also realize I didn’t go to my mother for reassurance at all—if that’s what I wanted, I could have gone to my father. They were divorced by then, and though my dad is a strong man himself, he has too much sympathy for his children and would have blanketed me in comfort. He would have told me that my cowardice was okay, and thought he was doing the right thing. I knew where to go for the embrace. Instead, I went for the cold water.

So there’s the positive side—I came close, but I didn’t let the fear control me, and perhaps it helped define the shape of my life. All around me, I see people constantly succumbing, constantly retreating, constantly rationalizing. And all around me, there are people who refuse that path of least resistance. I wonder, at times, if this is the great divide in human personalities, at least among those who aren’t fighting for survival. We are so frightened, and it becomes the dominant conflict of our lifetimes.

Later, thinking about the choice, there was an obverse side to the satisfaction. It was the sense of how close I had come to a total letdown, and how it settled over me in the brief minutes when I decided not to sing. Yes, I had beaten it back and reaped the emotional rewards, but there was no escaping the memory—it had been close enough to cast its shadow into my future. Like a shadow it had darkened me. Like a shadow it had encroached into the light spaces, pushing where it sensed weakness, staking out territory that would be difficult to ever reclaim. The word for it was failure, and like a shadow it would never leave.

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The battle has played out again and again. If we talk about failure as a lack of success in some worldly endeavor, that’s happened too many times to count. I don’t think of that as failure, though, but as rejection—a person or an entity telling you that what you did wasn’t good enough. Real failure, to me, can only be described in terms of the will. Rejection is only failure if it diminishes your will—otherwise, it’s just another story. I realize now that I’ve spent 1,000 words approaching an idea that has been summed up several famous people in much tidier fashion.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
—Thomas Edison

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
—Winston Churchill

“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
—Teddy Roosevelt

I have been rejected, and I have had failures of the will. I have it in me to be fearful, or discouraged, or lazy, which are all symptoms of the same disease. I’ve spent months, and years, doing nothing, with visions of future conquest as my only solace.

At the start of college, I expected deep down that everyone would be smarter than a small-town kid from the sticks, and so I didn’t pursue anything I wanted, and settled in with a group of small-minded friends who were nothing like me—or at least nothing like I wanted to be. I told myself there would be a time for pursuing creative things, and that time eventually came, but there was no master plan. I was just wasting time. I fell in love, I fell out with my friends, I fell into funks, I drank and smiled it away. Always the energy persisted—I had faith in myself, an irrational confidence despite the insecurities.

After college, I lived in New York City and worked as a secretary in a cancer center. I told myself it was temporary, and that the time for writing and creating would come later. That time eventually came, but there was no master plan. I retreated, I accepted, and I watched a co-worker six years older live out the life of my nightmares—aspirations lost to complacency and fear. I knew what I had to do, but the failure of will kept me in my place, rationalizing away.

Finally, after four years of this, I had the crisis of self-faith that was always coming. At lunch, a block from work, a midtown park—one of the concrete and three-tree affairs carved out between slabs of skyscraper. I ate my sandwich, though I wasn’t hungry. I was wondering how to jumpstart my life. Maybe, I thought, I’d move to Philadelphia. I can’t remember why that city appealed to me—I had spent a nice day there alone before a concert, and maybe I thought I’d take the place by storm, or that its smallness would give me everything New York could not.

I interrupted my fantasy to picture how it would really go in Philadelphia-solitary, no friends, no job, running out of money. Realizing that whatever I was fleeing here had caught up to me immediately, and that now I had less hope than ever.

A new sensation came, like warm rain running down the inside of my head—pure panic. My first real anxiety attack. I paced and panted, wondering what the hell I was feeling, and if my life had just changed for good. I tried going back to work, but left early when I couldn’t focus on my computer screen. Once home, I fell asleep immediately and didn’t wake up until the next morning. Gone, I thought—whatever the awful feeling was. And then on the subway the next morning, the Q-train, it came again. I survived the day, but when then feeling returned the second morning, I wondered if I should check myself in to a psych ward, or seek out the pills that would quell my mind. The fear had returned, but magnified, and I wanted badly to succumb. All that kept me on the path to a job I hated was the old instinct from the church—don’t give in to this. The minute you concede any ground, you’ve lost it for good.

This is extreme thinking that I would find unhelpful today, but at the time it may have driven me to the right choice.

So I persisted. I had lost my self-belief, and life stretched out before me ominously; a series of disappointments to be acted out like rituals. All I had left was my native strength, an angry defiance, and I knew that everything I wanted to build would have to start there. Long walks at lunch, and more attacks, and spinning thoughts and explanations and questions and solutions, all vanishing in a matter of seconds. Because this was the battle I’d been fighting since childhood, blown to new proportions—a test of will, of courage, of the ingredients that made me a person. Failure wanted me. It had never given up, and never would, and all it needed was for me to believe that it couldn’t be stopped. To say “enough” and invite the shadow into the light.

In the years that followed, after many false steps and a few false prophets, I came to accept the companionship. This thing called failure, this thing with a thousand other names, could never be evicted. It could only be accepted, and recognized, and kept at bay.

Because what is failure, but the cousin of death? Always there, ghostly shadow, reminding us that we can only fight to a point, after which we’ll fight no more. Success is the temporary absence of failure, while failure is the default condition. It lurks, tempting us to believe that our effort is futile. I feel it even now, having spoken its name. It argues, sometimes convincingly and sometimes desperately, for an end to the struggle that is our secret salvation.