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Onward and downward

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By Bob Mueller

We humans live with failure. We often experience more failure than success. When failure is respected and appreciated, it responds with great generosity, delighted we have not turned away from the substance of our own lives and happy to do whatever it can to forge the deepening of our experience. Onward and downward we go.

If we look around it is obvious that everybody wants to succeed in life. In every corner of the earth, no matter what one’s gender, creed, culture or religion, everybody is trying to succeed. Whether we work on Wall Street trying to succeed in earning our first million or as a laborer in India trying to make a few rupees to buy some food for our family, or even if we’re a panhandler on the streets of London trying to beg enough money for a drink in our own way we are each trying to succeed.

We are trying to win. Unconsciously we perceive life as a race to overcome death, and all of our actions are primarily a function and expression of our will to survive and our fear of dying. We believe if we don’t win, we lose.

That if we don’t get what we imagine we want, in the way we think we want it, then we will have lost – lost the opportunity to be happy, to be free of suffering, to have conquered life and death. It’s not that all of these beliefs are conscious, but rather that they comprise the unconscious fabric that serves as the referent for most of our small and large life choices. We don’t understand so-called failure and loss for the gifts they really are.

I have lost many things: my parents, my career, my sense of security, my vision of what my life was to be, as well as a small mountain of beliefs about who I thought I was. Perhaps more than anything, I lost my conviction that I could control life. I came upon forces that were simply beyond the domain of my well-developed capacity to manipulate life and circumstances. The losses have led me to grief, but the grief has led me to love, and in the love I finally begin to experience a fullness I had only heard about.

Actually, so called “failure” has become my friend. I can no longer separate my countless apparent failures from my equally numerous seeming successes, nor can I profess to always know which are which. More often than not, success and failure blur together into a continual flow of changing experience that I can only call “my life.”

The process of being humbled by my failures has left me raw and open, and thus measurably more available to life and to the ones I love. As someone who has hidden behind a stream of successes, my failure has made me more real and more connected, and has finally demanded that I not insist upon my separation from people.

What is the true nature of this failure we so fear? Is it something actual or is it simply the difference between our expectations of life and of ourselves, and what actually happens? Is it certain that we can fail at all? And if we can fail, is our failure the result of doing it wrong, or is it that we are disappointed by idealized and unrealistic expectations that we alone have placed on ourselves and on life?

Failure is a great paradox. On one hand we fail all the time. We could have done better and we didn’t. We missed the mark. We betrayed ourselves or somebody else. We made a mess of things. On the other hand, when we learn to use failure as a gateway to self-understanding, and especially when we come to uproot the very notion of failure itself, we discover we cannot fail. Both are true: we fail and we cannot fail.

Failure cannot be tricked. We cannot fake our way into being open to failure and then expect all gains to be ours. We will be disappointed. Crossing the finish line feels great, but the training is tough. Failure does not feel like success. If often feels like total, abject and often even inconsolable grief. Yet, since we are to fail no matter what we do, and an intentional engagement with failure yields far greater gains than an attempted forfeit, why not risk running toward it? What do have to lose, really?

When failure and loss become stepping stones on the path of deepening our experience of life in all of its guts and glory, then we have entered the reality of winning though losing.

Bob Mueller is Senior Director of Mission & Stewardship at Hosparus. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.