Surviving Failure, Befriending Defeat
As we creep into the new year, one hidden “gift” of the Covid era is coming firmly into view. It has dawned on millions of people that they are highly unsatisfied with their current circumstances, opening the door for changes that might not have been considered before. Should I move? Should I change careers? Should I stop commuting? We have dusted off that powerful tool that sits quietly in our mental sheds and have begun to aggressively wield it. This tool is our capacity of choice.
Now that the awakening has begun, perhaps we should ask, “How far can this free will thing go? Because as great as external lifestyle adjustments may be, as long as we are still enslaved to our (often toxic) reactions to those circumstances, we will habitually derail our own sense of happiness and well-being and run frantically through an exitless and uncontrollable hamster wheel of high and low states of mind.
Many people feel taken advantage of, misjudged, misunderstood and devalued. We often feel a smoldering sense of failure and defeat, and it seems impossible to view our defeats as beneficial. But personal defeat is inevitable, and how we go about relating to it will massively impact the quality of our lives.
Events will unfold in a manner which is highly at odds with that which we most deeply desire. A cherished project will inexplicably go off the rails, a person who you absolutely need in your life will decide he or she’s “just not that into you” and cut off communication. Others will callously return your sacrifice and magnanimity towards them with scorn and contempt. We rail against it when it happens and sulk in the acidic puddle of failure. The decisions made in this emotionally degraded state often have far reaching consequences.
How then, might we deal with all this?
Defeat, My Bold Companion
One classical approach to this ancient conundrum is to look for silver linings within life’s dark clouds. There’s a story I like in the 11th Century work “Duties of the Heart” by the Spanish rabbi and philosopher Bachya Ibn Pekudah. He writes about a rabbi who was walking through the street with several of his students. They came upon the carcass of a dead dog. “What a vile sight,” they remarked. “Look how nice and white its teeth are,” said the rabbi.
Defeat is the death of a falsely perceived reality. It’s also a birth – into clarity, into increased awareness and into truth itself.
The rabbi is willing to look for the good in an otherwise unpleasant situation. This is certainly a significant indicator of enlightened thinking and a balanced psyche. What we currently regard as grotesque, unjust, shockingly unacceptable, and just plain bad needs to be totally reframed. This is the path out of the hamster wheel.
The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran effectively captured the challenging yet liberating attitude that is required to do this. In five brilliant stanzas he explains how to live on a far more exalted level than most of us do. Essentially, he “friends” his failure:
Defeat, my Defeat, my solitude and my aloofness;
You are dearer to me than a thousand triumphs,
And sweeter to my heart than all world-glory.
Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance,
Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot
And not to be trapped by withering laurels.
And in you I have found aloneness
And the joy of being shunned and scorned.
Defeat, my Defeat, my shining sword and shield,
In your eyes I have read
That to be enthroned is to be enslaved,
And to be understood is to be leveled down,
And to be grasped is but to reach one’s fullness
And like a ripe fruit to fall and be consumed.
Defeat, my Defeat, my bold companion,
You shall hear my songs and my cries and my silences,
And none but you shall speak to me of the beating of wings,
And urging of seas,
And of mountains that burn in the night,
And you alone shall climb my steep and rocky soul.
Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,
You and I shall laugh together with the storm,
And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,
And we shall stand in the sun with a will,
And we shall be dangerous.
Defeat is death. It’s the death of a falsely perceived reality, of a sweetly assumed lie. It’s also a birth – into clarity, into increased awareness and into truth itself. These too are gifts, albeit packaged in an opaque wrapping of sadness and confusion. Defeat is indeed a “bold companion” and if we allow it to inspire boldness within us as well, then we too will “laugh together with the storm.”
As we collectively weather the Covid storm and shoulder the tempest in our own souls, the extent to which we can recognize and reframe our setbacks, losses, failures and defeats as a demanding but effective teacher and friend is the degree to which we will thrive through them.
This too is for the good.