None of us truly wants to admit when we’ve failed… when we’ve been wrong or wronged another… when we have been unable or unwilling to live up to our highest ideals of who we are or who we want to be. We don’t want to say out loud to ourselves, or to another person, that have fallen short, that we are less than, that we were not capable, that we were selfish, or vengeful, or that at some moment we made a conscious decision to choose us over them, our wants over their needs.
Now obviously, I am not talking about those little day to day moments when we are lost in our own little worlds and we cut someone off in traffic, or ignore that text, etc.… I’m talking about the big ones… the actual FAILURES with a capital “F.” You know the ones… looking into the eyes of someone you care about and seeing their pain, but they hurt you so deeply that your every word, your every action is meant only to inflict maximum damage… and you just can’t seem to stop yourself. Or when that bad day at work, school, fill in the blank, takes you to your knees and you find yourself blaming everything on the spouse, the kid, the dog… When instead of being the supportive friend, you begin judging everything in their life, telling them how they should live, who they should be, and how they should feel in a situation that you yourself have never personally experienced. Or am I the only that has been on both the giving and receiving ends of these failures? No?
And of course, there are multitudes of other failures… the ones that we inflict on ourselves that keep us from accomplishing our dreams or living the lives we dream of… the list goes on and on. There are those that are quick to fall on their sword, tell you how they are wrong, what’s broken about them; as if that offers them some sort of pass for inflicting damage. “Well, I told you I was a liar, cheater, thief, [fill in the blank], so it’s really not my fault… it’s yours.”
So why do we turn such a blind eye to these places where we come up short? Why do we pass the buck? Why do we try to shift the blame? Why do this instead of doing better?
We are all humans. And as such, we are outfitted with the exact same set of imperfections, weakness, short-comings, and stumbling blocks as every other human being on this planet. Even the Dali Lama himself has admitted to getting angry, if only momentarily, before he finds his way back to balance using the tools he has spent a lifetime learning. Why do we not allow ourselves that same process, that same path? Why the expectation that we will get it all right all the time? Do we really believe that we will be swept up in some kind of enlightening moment that will change everything about us to be something other than human? Do we think we will really get there without the opportunity to practice? If we haven’t been able to make the change to our satisfaction the first 100 times we try is it really impossible that attempt 101 will be the one that does it? Either way, is it possible that there is a small shift in perspective or another way that we just haven’t seen yet?
When we were very small… the little bodies with big heads known as toddlers, we learned new things every moment of every day. We pulled ourselves up to standing, and we fell over… and we did it again and again until we found what balance felt like. And we started to move around in that new upright position… hanging on to stuff usually… and we fell down, and we scared ourselves, and maybe we even fell on stuff and ended up with stitches. But as soon as the tears and the fears were done we were at it again… until we could move around on our own two feet, even without hanging on to stuff. And surely, we were not graceful, but we were thrilled and full of joy… and shortly thereafter, we were on the run! For almost every single one of us, this is our story.
When did we give up that will to try? That will to fail? To take stock of what went right, what went wrong, and how we can correct it on the next try? When did it become all or nothing? When did it become doing it perfectly or a measure of our worth as a human being? When did the stakes become that high? More importantly, how do we think anything will ever get any better or change under that ideal?
I have a doctorate in learning. And I will tell you something, and we learn best through trial and error. Even knowing that, studying that, believing that, and accepting that, I still fall into the same trap. Oh, I can look at my failures. (Like so many of us do at about 2:30 in the morning staring at the ceiling…) But to be able to do anything with that awareness, I have to own it. I have to claim the “less than wonderful” pieces of myself. Not just to me, but to those that may have ended up in the cross-hairs of my “much, much less than wonderful” attempts at the person I want to be.
I can already hear you asking “why”? Why do I need to involve anyone else in my failings? Isn’t it painful enough to admit to myself? Yes, but guess what? You already have. Others have already had plenty of experience at the short-end of our failings long before we are willing to see them and really do something about them. Owning our failures with those we’ve hurt can help to mend the connections we have broken… and at the very least shows that we are indeed aware and trying to do better. Not that any of this lets us off the hook for any suffering we may have caused… but sitting with the pain our failings caused to others can be the catalyst and provide the understanding we need to do something different next time… and that may make all the difference in what we do and how we do it.
All this being said, I am currently staring down the barrel of a number of personal failures and making my way through the process of making sense of them… i.e., what were absolute failings, what were reactions, what were the triggers, what I can do differently, what am I responsible for, and what belongs to another… the list goes on. But for now, with certainty I can say this… there is a primal level where I am unable to articulate what I need. At that point I become fearful which triggers my “Fight-flight-or-freeze” response, which in my case is almost always “fight.” I meet pain with pain, not the loving kindness that I aspire to. I become unable and unwilling to trust. Again, not with the loving kindness and faith that I aspire to. I meet hurt with hurt rather than the understanding and compassion that I am capable of.
I offer these not to share what a horrible person I am, but what a horrible person I can be when those dark, unhealed, and unchanged places inside of me are running the show. And I am truly grateful that these places rarely run the show anymore. But unfortunately, recent events have made clear to me that places are still there even though I haven’t seen them in a very long time…. So, my work is now to own them, learn what has brought them out/back, do better, and do differently from here on… to the best of my human ability.
A final word on failing and owning it. The healing aspects of this process are (in my experience) only available when we are authentic in our desire to change, our desire to do better, and our desire to take responsibility for the hurt we have caused others. But this is not to say that your failings are solely responsible for every painful situation you find yourself in with another person… us human beings have plenty of failings to go around! I have learned, the very hard way, that in some situations owning your failings to the one you have harmed will be taken as an “out” with all blame being heaped on your shoulders simply because you were willing to admit your part. In these cases, it might prove best to simply own them to yourself, share them with a supportive, un-involved, close-lipped, third party and simply remain willing to own them with the one you hurt if and when it seems safe, healing, and mutually beneficial to do so.
What has your experience with failure been?