by Heather McIver, L.Ac
In most cultures above the equator, Spring is the season of new beginnings. Baby animals are born, seeds lying dormant underground begin pushing sprouts upward, trees begin to clothe their limbs in blooms. And with those vulnerable new beginnings come threats of failure. Hawks and snakes love young birds and bunnies; large rocks or burning sun can thwart young sprouts; a late frost can decimate a tree’s attempt at fruition. And yet the plants and animals keep trying. Somehow, despite these threats to life, the tree doesn’t refuse to bloom and birds keep laying eggs.
If you pay attention, you may notice that for humans, spring brings new ideas, new excitement, outrageous projects. Spring fever is not just about romance…it also exemplifies that ascension of Qi that makes us feel invincible, as if we can accomplish anything. We relish the speed with which we can travel to work, the windows open to feel the warming air, our favorite music blaring, the bright colors of green and pink and white trees against the blue sky…spring awakens the senses and we feel connected to everyone and everything. Until we see the blue lights behind us and realize that in our ecstatic appreciation of the world, we let the speedometer creep to 80.
All of a sudden, all that expansive everything-is-perfect feeling drops with a thud into the pit of the stomach, curse words leap out of our mouths uncontrollably, and now the conversation in our head turns mean. “You idiot,” it says, as it runs through all the consequences this mistake will have. When we are speeding along toward a goal, excited about new possibilities, there are inevitable failures along the way. Getting where we’re going requires us to become friendly with our failures.
Failure is part of the experience of being alive. It’s what happens the moment you engage with the world. As adults, many of us find ways to avoid failure as much as possible. Some of us choose to never take on anything we might not do perfectly. Instead, we spend our time changing channels on the TV, or we get competent at one thing and never bother to try anything new. Some of us try new things but then work so hard that we sacrifice our time, money, health and relationships to be sure we don’t fail.
Children, however, are very good at failure. They fall down. They get up. They drop the ball, they pick it up. They fail to get your attention, they scream louder. They don’t attach any significance to failure, they just keep pushing on.
I wish I remembered the exact moment at which I made failure mean something. At some point—maybe around age 8 or 10 or 13—missing the mark went from “oops, missed. I’ll try again.” To “OMG, I’m stupid! I can’t do anything! I’ll mess up everything I ever do and die miserable and alone!”
It’s so easy to take our failures as something definitive of our very personhood. “I can’t dance/ sing/ draw/ act…I’m not any good at that.” What you really mean is that you tried to dance/sing/draw/act once and you got some feedback that didn’t feel very good, and in your attempt to never feel that particular way again, you resolved to forevermore avoid the catalyst for that feedback. But what if, like children, we allowed ourselves a good cry and then danced again anyway?
Pema Chodron gave a speech at Naropa Institute in 2014 when her granddaughter was graduating. She borrowed a quote from Samuel Beckett who said, “Fail! Fail Again! Fail Better!” She said learning how to be with failure was perhaps the most important life lesson to learn. In her usual soft manner, she encourages us to “get curious” about how it feels to fail. She reminds us not to admonish ourselves too much, not to blame others too much, not to drown the bad feelings in food or drugs or alcohol—but to sit with them and observe how they move and sway and come and go. To let them be there. Only in the recognition of something’s presence can you actually let it go.
She describes her first meeting with her Buddhist teacher*. Her second marriage had just ended in divorce. She said, “My life is over. I have hit the bottom. I don’t know what to do. Please help me.”
He said, “Well, it’s a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you down. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea.”
If you are walking into the ocean, you will get knocked down sometimes. It’s nothing personal. It’s not particularly noble. And maybe some wonderful insight will come from having sand in your face…or maybe not. It’s just what the ocean does. Success and failure is what life does.
So when your kid doesn’t make it on the team, or your best friend doesn’t get the promotion she worked so hard for, don’t try to be helpful. Don’t suggest what they could do better next time or feed into malicious gossip about the person who did succeed. Don’t try to problem-solve or to cheer them up. Instead, allow them the freedom to be in pain. You can say, “I’m so sorry, I know you are disappointed.” Be the space in which they can let the sadness, anger, resentment, self-pity wash over and through them. Given space, these emotions will move out of their own accord.
Just like a tree will send out blooms again, we all have an innate desire to move forward in life – to create – to make a difference. That desire has its own momentum. Once we can get our minds out of the way, it will take over. It will pull us off the ocean floor and point us in the direction of the horizon.
* Chodron, Pema. (2015). Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. Sounds True, Inc. pp 77-79.