The Art of Failure

Making things better is the mission that drives me. In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.

Making things better is the mission that drives me.  In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.  Relationships, nutrition, work life, home environment, fitness and strength, education and understanding of the world.  It’s not just myself that I try to better: other people and animals are a part of my mission.  In my teaching career, I have strived to provide children with a better understanding of literature and the worlds within the texts that we read.  As a mum, I worked relentlessly to give my children a better childhood than mine, and better opportunities as they grew up.  As a friend and acquaintance, I try to support others to achieve better states of mind and happier lives.   As a vegan, I want to improve animal rights and the environment.   

Alongside these worthy thoughts and dreams, I have become aware of a subtext, born directly from my inner ‘truth’ that I must always get better.  I regularly find myself pestered by thoughts and ruminations about all the times in my life that I have got things wrong, and I haven’t known how to handle the sense of failure.   The list is long and goes back to incidents at school where I made up stories for attention.  ‘My cat has had kittens’, I told the class one afternoon, in circle time.  When a friend turned up at the house, with her mum, to buy one, the truth was revealed.  I’d made it up because I wanted the class to look at me with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that other children received, with their exciting lives.  I can still feel the shame of that doorstep conversation, with my mortified mum denying the existence of any kittens, and my friend’s accusatory voice.  ‘But Ruth told the whole class!’ she persisted, disappointed and shocked. 

I don’t intend to write a list of my failures here.  The kitten story is difficult enough to confess, even now, although it happened when I was five.  There are many more.  I’ve been bitchy, two-faced, untruthful, cruel, weak and immature.  I have a failed marriage, which still bothers me.  He wasn’t the only one who messed up.  I did, too.  Many, many times.  It’s true that we were never compatible, and something was always off from the get-go, but there were times that I behaved badly and it’s difficult to live with that.

Why is it so difficult to know that I haven’t always been ‘good’?  I guess in my case there is a lot of conditioning behind that.  A Christian girl should be (insert a list of self-sacrificing bullshit).  Raised in a small sect of conservative Christianity, wearing a headscarf in church and being taught that men are leaders and women should submit to their leadership, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel, or express, anything challenging.  Taught that self-denial is a virtue, I learned to keep my true self hidden, and I simply behaved ‘well’ and mimicked the words and actions of others, to ensure my own acceptance and safety.  It has always felt like a terrible thing to say, ‘I failed’.  Getting things wrong is not acceptable.  I have tied myself in knots, time after time, trying to convince myself that what I did was understandable, and what I said was actually alright.  Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have done different etc etc.  ‘I failed’ has never been a phrase that I could live with.  It has seemed like a pointing finger – pointing to damnation and self-loathing.  In trying to forgive and accept myself, I have exhausted my frazzled mind attempting to justify and explain away my mistakes and wrongdoings.  When asking myself, ‘Am I a good person?’, I find that the failures make the answer a firm ‘no’.

Until this morning.  As I bumbled about, getting my breakfast and cogitating on the previous few days, analysing everything and anything as usual, something changed in my thinking.  I considered a recent failure, and instead of trying to justify it to myself, I said aloud, ‘I failed’.  The world did not change.  I said it again, with a growing smile: ‘I failed’.  It was strangely freeing and acceptable as I found myself accepting that failure is human.  We can be glorious and we can be diabolical.  I have been glorious and I have been diabolical.  We all fail.  Instead of justifying and explaining, I accepted, this morning, that I sometimes fail, and that’s not great but neither is it a disaster.  It is a fact.  If I wish to forgive myself, I must first acknowledge that I was wrong.  It wasn’t OK.  It was crap.  But that doesn’t make me any worse than the next person.  I’m no better and I’m no worse.  The average person gets many things wrong.  Even the most saintly type has a bad day.  So today I see my failures.  They make me human.  ‘I failed’.  And what?  It would be impossible to stop trying to get things right, to take the better path and to be the kindest version of myself possible every day.  But when I fail, I fail – and from now on, those are the times that I will put my arms around my fragile, failing self and remind myself that forgiveness and compassion are the most important qualities of human kindness, even and especially when it comes to ourselves.

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