Fall Healing Moon
Been pondering success after my Percival/Grail post for the Woolly Mammoth retreat. This paragraph in particular:
In terms of publishing my work I’ve failed. Big time. Consistently. A big lump of zero. At first I submitted my work, but I allowed rejections to stoke my fear, rather than my persistence. (which is, I should add, odd, since persistence has otherwise been a strong suit) I stopped submitting. I even stopped writing at one point and spent a year reading the classics, starting with Dante’s Divine Comedy. All of it.
I took a big risk at the age of 41 with Kate’s consent and support. By any standard understanding of success I did not succeed. To succeed would been to have least published, made some money. But, no. Those facts are not in question.
Here’s the question that interests me now. Would I have been a better person today if I had published, made some money? I don’t think so. Now this is not a defense of failure as a great teacher, a springboard to future achievement, rather it’s a question of what success means.
Success means you gain more of something you desire by doing something. So it presumes lack, a missing ingredient in your life that can be obtained through hard work or brilliance or talent. Get a promotion. Build a business. Publish a book. See your name in lights. Think how much motivation the idea of success brings to our culture. If only you think more clearly, innovate faster, learn method acting, master Python, then, then…
Then, what? People will admire you. Like you. Say your name in whispers. Write about you in articles and books. That’s the upside of ambition, isn’t it? More money in the bank. Name recognition. Contribution to the future, a legacy.
I’m in no way denigrating people who set a goal and succeed. Kate became a doctor. Tom started an engineering business. Ode designed museum exhibits. My sister Mary has become an international educator, invited to teach in places like Japan, Pakistan, Finland, Australia. Joseph is a major in the USAF. Good for all of them.
But many (most, I wonder?) hope for the corner office, the book jacket, the big bank account, the poster for the rodeo and don’t succeed. Set goals and fail to achieve them. Self help literature, especially of the business genre, offers pathways to success, a journey to maximum achievement. They wouldn’t sell if the people who bought them were already realizing their dreams.
So what about the rest of us, the ones who couldn’t lean quite far enough off the Merry-Go-Round to grab the brass ring? Based on my perspective at 71, I say to failure, meh. I’m alive. Fit. Have friends. A wife I love. Grandkids and sons. I don’t do regret. I live forward, not with my head turned toward the past. I live today, neither yesterday nor tomorrow. I feel good about myself, about my tiny spot in the vast ongoingness.
Would my life have meant more in some hypothetical cultural currency had I become, oh hell, let’s go all the way, a famous author? Hard to say, but I doubt it. Why? Because over time there have been millions of writers, authors of books of many kinds, some famous for a while, then blinked out by the passage of time and changes in intellectual and aesthetic fashion. The same is true of painters, of architects, of politicians, of lawyers and business executives.
Now I suppose if I had plunged our family into poverty, wasted a great talent through dithering, caused human suffering by not succeeding I might feel differently. Might. But even then my life could only be lived forward and in this moment. Even then.
Here’s what I know now. Set goals and push toward them. Of course do that if you want. Do not attach your sense of self to the outcome, however. Never, and I mean never, compromise your true Self to realize a goal. Why? Because whether you reach your goal or whether you do not, you still have to live, still have to be human. If you give away your humanity to succeed, you have then truly failed.
And if you succeed? Send up balloons. Shake a few hands. Invest wisely. Because at some point it will be behind you and you will have to put one foot in front of the other. Life’s just like that.