How often must you fail before it stops hurting? That was the question in my mind this morning. It’s not that I am exactly failing. I’m just not succeeding, at all.
I’ve heard a lot of interesting and many helpful bits of advice about becoming conscious, and the flow of this year in particular. What has stayed with me is an idea that seems to describe life, whatever your belief system.
We’ start out in life floating down a river in boats of different shapes and sizes. At some point however we lose the boat, or it breaks apart on rocks, or it gets hijacked or stolen or reappropriated. After this, we make the rest of our way submerged in the river itself, which means everything is harsher, brighter, colder, more immediate, more beautiful, more wild, more painful, more harrowing, more directly interactive. (To be fair, if this were not a metaphor, we’d probably also die from hypothermia at this point, but I digress.)
For all its simplicity, I feel this metaphor is quite apt. For instance, I know many people including myself who are going along in living, and then something happens to terrify us out of our skin and we’re flailing in the water. If you think holding onto the shore gives you safety, think twice. Without a boat, it’s your hands grasping at the rocks along the bank for dear life. Meanwhile the churning water surges past you, dragging you away, leaving your hands wounded and bloody stains on the rock where they were a moment before. Trust me, this only needs to happen once before you realize it’s a terrible strategy.
So we try letting go and floating. And this is by far the more sensible thing to do … until we hear that we’re approaching a waterfall, and begin questioning our sanity. (I’m going to do what?) It’s not as though we aren’t used to white water rapids and waterfalls. It’s just that with them, there are only two outcomes: somewhat miraculous gliding through unscathed, or disaster.
Finishing a dissertation is like hearing that roar of waterfall up ahead. I am questioning my sanity—well to be honest I’ve been questioning that for a while. I have also heard lately the saying that if we just let the water carry us over the edge and not struggle with it, in other words pay attention to the way things in life are going and adjust ourselves accordingly, this will prevent tumbling headlong into raging currents from getting disastrous. I, for one, am not convinced.
I am paying attention to what’s going on with the people in my life who have some control over when I graduate. If I took their actions as a sign and went with the flow, so to speak, I’d slow down. In the past week, three people, an auspicious number, have told me in different ways that my plan for defending this summer is unrealistic. If I believe them, I will give up before even starting. If I don’t believe them, I’ll just be bulldozing ahead in a way that frankly feels a bit obtuse. Sure, I’m good at being recalcitrant, but that hasn’t ever won me a popularity contest in social graces. So I usually refrain.
So this morning I woke up thinking about entrepreneurs who say they are successful because they failed first, more times than they can count. It baffles me. How on earth do they do this without feeling terrible about themselves, being ashamed, giving up and attempting an easier venture instead, shedding tears, grieving, or making fools of themselves? (Actually, crying is probably acceptable. Literally or figuratively falling flat on your face? Probably not.)
I think about social movements, people who lose their lives to take a cause forward and never live to see its conclusion. Have they failed retrospectively if the movement disintegrates? Or the people who have always wanted children and try, but can’t: have they failed? I mean, they did try and did not succeed, and that’s one definition of failure. Does a person fail when their body has genuine physical limits they can’t transcend? Is it just their body that has failed them?
When is failure not personal? When is it both a genuine falling short and yet not a loss? When does it defeat a person? When is it transformative? How many attempts at trying are needed before it’s all right to walk away? How many failures does a person have to endure before it’s okay to stop beating herself up about it? Would failure be impossible in a world where judgment does not exist, and if so, are there good reasons for us in this judgmental world to abandon the concept in favor of another one? Is it ever possible to fail, spectacularly, and still be worth something, and still be whole, and still be enough?
These are my questions, and I struggle with the answers. Right now, I have little wisdom to impart. I am only beginning to experience what will hopefully, if I don’t fail, turn out to be the sequence of things which will give me the answers to those questions. And in doing so, I am reminded of the very sensible saying which I have never heeded, “Don’t try this at home, kids.”
What I do know is that sometimes failure isn’t a result of not working hard at something. There have been times when I’ve worked so hard on my dissertation that I’ve driven myself into incoherence and exhaustion. These efforts however have no impact on how fast or slowly my committee gives me comments, if they give them at all. On top of this, life seems to be getting in the way of progress for everyone involved, so that regardless of how much I personally do, there’s a sense in which progress isn’t really made. I am reminded of Diana Gabaldon’s book title, “Dragonfly in Amber.” If I’m the dragonfly, grad school is the amber. I beat and beat my wings, but hover still. Is that failure? Or has there happened to be an eddy right before the waterfall so that I can look ahead to the treacherous journey but am forever swirled in place? I suppose if life is a river, you’re bound to get caught in its eddies sometime or other. Is that failure, or just terrible timing and bad luck?
For all sorts of good and ridiculous reasons, I am here, working on a PH.D., which maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll finish. There are people who get several PH.D.s. They have got to be masochistic. I’ve already reached the point where I am tired of such a painful experience, but the experience isn’t willing to give me up yet. I wish I had made other life choices. There are no answers, but I keep wondering when I’ll no longer feel like a failure, or like I am trying to climb Mt. Everest in flip-flops and a bathing suit. When does the light break through the clouds? When it does, I will not look back.