the beauty of failure

I have a friend. Let’s call him John. John is a strict fella with high expectations of people. He has never rebelled against his parents, never broken his own rules, never failed to live up to his own beliefs and laws. And John does not understand people who have done any of those things. He can’t understand how anyone could ever act impulsively or against their better judgment, and he never takes risks where this could happen. He is a good man – but he lacks compassion because he has never been in a hell of his own making.

Having recently broken my own rules and come face-to-face with the ugliness that exists inside me, I find myself sympathizing with people I’ve looked down on in the past. I caught myself in the middle of a conversation with a friend about a mutual acquaintance. This acquaintance had hurt someone I care about deeply (why do we all do this???), and ever since then I had held nothing but the deepest contempt for him. And yet, in the middle of this conversation, I paused and realized that I was just like him. I, too, had heartlessly hurt someone I was involved with. The realization that I was right there with this fella that I had previously scorned….well, that took me back a moment. And it helped me to move on to consider accepting him into our community. It allowed me to feel for the first time a tentative forgiveness towards this individual.

It seems to me that there are some people in this world who just never seem to screw up. People who live these quiet, mild lives of continued decency, who are always nice and kind and never get angry. I have difficulty understanding these people. Their lives are so foreign to my life, which is constantly changing and at times approaches chaos (generally an exuberant kind of chaos but nevertheless). In all honesty, sometimes I envy their lives: I want their calmness of temperament, their mild mannerisms, their inability to harm others. And yet…Cait said this thing about John (this is a really gossipy post, huh), that he doesn’t make mistakes because he doesn’t take risks, and so he never tempts failure. Is this the key to leading a “blameless life,” a life that never injures another: to never take risks?

I think back to all the choices I have made since I learned to think independently. I have made a lot of risky decisions. A lot of them have failed. But every failure was a lesson. There are only two mistakes that I honestly regret in my twenty-five years of life: hurting this friend recently and hurting my mother in a fit of temper when I was fifteen. These I regret because they affected others besides me. But everything else…I would not surrender any of those risks that failed. Every romantic fuckup in my past has convinced me of what I would not accept in a life partner and provided me with the traits that I desire in a life partner, bringing me with every romance closer to my ideal until I thought I had found it. Every travel destination in which I was depressed and miserable has provided me with knowledge of the kind of physical and social environment that I would like to live in – and here I am finally settled in my own little happy corner of the earth. Every job, every educational and professional choice…I learned from each and every one, but I learned the most from the ones which initially were colossal failures (like library school – notice I said “initially”), and I grew with every failure. Just like I’m growing with this failure, growing a little wiser after the fact, a little more compassionate, a little more cautious in my every day – I can feel it because of how painful it is. Growth is never comfortable, is it?

And then Cait… Cait who has the most beautiful soul of any person that I have ever known. Who is the most understanding, most loving and most compassionate person in my life. And who has suffered the most and been through unhappiness that I would not wish on anyone. I honestly believe that it is her past that has made her into this beautiful, loving, incredible and radiant soul.

So failure is important. It teaches compassion for others, because we have sunk as low as they have. It was Krista Tippett who, in her TEDtalk, touched on a similar vein: “Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems. But what a liberating thing to realize that our problems, in fact, are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion, towards bringing compassion towards the suffering and joys of others.”

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