Alternative rock bands belt out songs about it, great poets honor it, and all of us have smacked headlong into it. Sit with failure long enough, says Ellen Graf, and it always transforms.
My father’s best friend was Gilbert the carpenter, whose right hand often had a hammer-purpled thumbnail and whose broad mouth was always almost laughing. One summer when I was a little girl Gilbert made a St. Francis bird feeder out of a hickory tree that had grown in a gentle curve. The seven-foot statue leaned slightly forward with its branch arms outstretched and was fitted with wideopen hands, palms up, for offerings of seed and suet. Its creased face looked kind of like Gilbert’s and its feet were bolted to a concrete slab under a white pine near the public sidewalk. One night, a thief came with a bolt cutter and in the morning just a few sparrows and a jay crisscrossed the empty space.
Sometimes I imagine the thief sitting in a weedy alley on a green and white plastic lawn chair, gazing through a haze of cigar smoke at St. Francis leaned up against a cinder block wall. Why did the thief steal the saint? What a scoundrel. What a loser. Or maybe not. A thief may be called a moral failure and as such a failed human being, but such an assertion could be wrong. Imagine that his grasping impulse sprang from a longing to be a better man, the image of which eluded him until, on the way to the convenience store, he saw Gilbert’s statue and he felt its magnetic pull. What had always been abstract and missing was now suddenly and solidly before him—life-sized, made of hickory, and within his clever grasp.
The St. Francis heist reminds me of frustrated ancient seekers of buddhahood, students of the Zen master Rinzai who lived roughly between 810 and 866. If the thief ached with longing, so did Rinzai’s students. They made themselves anxious and incomplete by their failure to get this thing called buddhahood and they didn’t stop scanning the Earth for what they were missing even as their master scolded, “What good does it do to look under rocks and pine trees for what can only be found inside yourself?” Then, just before whacking them on the head with a stick, he shouted, “Have faith in yourselves!”
The one thing that can’t be stolen from the curbside or found under a rock is one’s own true nature. It’s a hard thing for people to understand and words don’t make it much easier. The clue inherent in the word failure is “lure.” “Failure,” a soft and beautiful sound, requires a curl of the tongue, a purse of the lips. It breaks on the “l” and seeps into the sand with no definitive end. It’s like wind coming and saltwater going, back into itself.
If you think it unlikely that the thief of Gilbert’s St. Francis had anything in common with Rinzai’s students—that he was more likely a common thief trading saintly bird feeders on the black market—then let me assure you that he certainly had something in common with St. Francis himself, as Francis began his spiritual journey with a morally questionable theft of his own. He heard the voice of the Lord command him, “Go Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” Francis, in eagerness to act, took the words literally, and, having no funds, stole from his father’s shop in order to buy the building materials. When he returned home, his enraged father beat and bound him. Disappointing one’s father cannot be called failure—it is what many must do to live truthfully—but Francis did fail to understand the voice’s subtle meaning. He failed in his methods, he failed in relationship, and only some time after failing into the cave of himself could he compose songs of praise for “every kind of weather.”
My internalized definition of failure, as not being able to be what you want to be or to do what you want to do, is related to wanting, into which we are born, and to the abundance that comes from limitation. Some other definitions of failure include: a cessation of proper functioning; the condition or fact of not achieving one’s desired ends; the condition or fact of being insufficient or falling short; the act of failing a test; an American rock band of critical acclaim in the 1990s; and a song by the alternative rock band Sevendust released in 2006. There are dozens more songs themed on failure, but one titled “Insight to Failure” from the hardcore band Harp And Lyre out of Oklahoma City contains these striking lyrics, which present the idea of failure as a herald of self-betrayal:
Awake! I’ve been sleeping
I’ve been restless and reckless I’ve jeopardized my viability
This is not me! This is not me!
I’ve come up from the grave
and met you face to face
Awake! Awake! I’m awake!
An unpopular topic in mainstream American culture, failure is a theme reflected upon creatively by alternative rock bands and honored by great poets. “Failure, background language from a more demanding space / it’s difficult to read between your lines,” writes Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas in the poem Fracaso—“Failure”—which is an impassioned ode thanking failure for not giving him another life, for having limited him, for having used a rough sponge to clean him off. “You don’t exist,” he declares to failure, “you’ve been made up out of delirious pride.”
Fail is what we mostly do—even if mostly gradually and repeatedly rather than massively, and even if—as Cadenas claims—it is made up and doesn’t exist. But thinking as this poet did about how failure is both an obstacle and an intimate companion, how it both burns and saves, and how it both does and does not exist, is not what we mostly do. Singing about how it wakes us up to our truest self is not what we usually do either.
But I don’t want to talk about how “Every success is the result of a series of failures,” as Thomas Edison said, or how every failure teaches a lesson. It is not my intention to talk about small failures, which are easily thought of as “for the best.” I don’t want to talk about the invention of the light bulb. I want to talk about crushing, scathing failures that break the world as we know it into a thousand pieces. Even if failure does not exist, I want to talk about how it feels like death and how it makes it seem impossible to be who you thought you were. Even if failure doesn’t exist, I will tell you of a failure that knocked two hearts to the ground. Mine and my husband’s.
“I am junk,” he said.
“Okay,” I answered. When someone believes they are a failure, it’s best not to argue. It probably will not help to remind them that failure doesn’t exist and might, if they let it, escort them inward to the germ of their existence. I wasn’t being flip, I just knew he was too heavy a package for me to keep afloat. My husband wanted to be a paramedic, but the struggle as he made his sleep-deprived, red-eyed way through two years of English as a Second Language, English 101 and 102, chemistry, anatomy, psychology, biology, and pathophysiology, had been monumental.
I’ve heard that when a person reads Chinese, parts of the brain light up on a PET scan that do not light up when they read English alphabetical combinations. Different neural pathways are used to process pictographic characters than are used to process alphabetical combinations. The degree of activity shows up in terms of the colors of the rainbow, with red and yellow indicating where there is more blood flow and oxygen, and blue and black indicating not much happening. So having to switch languages at age forty-four must have been sort of like having a stroke for my husband. He had to dress in the dark and stumble across the uncharted realms of the cerebral cortex, stomping down blue-black weeds and pulling on blue-black vines. I had hoped the thready pathways would meet with the old surefire ones and create a familiar clearing in the middle of this strange land, but after ten years, this mythical place eluded.
Just the evening before, my husband had taken a final exam at the community college. He got a headache trying to decide if the answer was a, a&b, b&c, d, none of the above, or all of the above. Afterwards, he chanced upon the teacher in the meat section at the grocery store. He waved and called out loudly “Hi, Professor, how are you!” Greeting friends or acquaintances with flamboyant waves, shouts, or hugs is not the Chinese way. My husband says in China people would think you were not right in the head. But here in America customs are clearly different and my husband overcompensates when something feels unnatural by trying extra hard to conform. His grocery store greeting may have been a bit exuberant. I’m only guessing, I wasn’t there. His arresting martial physique combined with his dishevelment of scholarly stress and expression of dazed goodwill may have thrown the man off balance.
“What are you doing here?” the teacher asked.
My husband, obliquely registering the gruff tone as unfriendly, answered cheerily that he was buying food, although he thought this should be obvious. Americans can be so strange.
The next day the director of the paramedic program summoned my husband to her office and demanded that he sign a piece of paper called a contact report. His teacher had filed a complaint that my husband had stalked him into the grocery store late at night and startled him in the meat aisle in violation of an article in the student code of conduct stating that students must not approach a teacher outside of the classroom setting. My husband, thinking the director was accusing him of being a violent person, politely refused to sign, which made her even angrier. She gave him twenty-four hours to consider the serious consequences. He returned home, stricken— and that is how I found him. He had already been in the two-year degree program for more than two years. He was going down and—as his shaky academic tutor and clueless social coach—I was going with him.
Whether the situation was the result of a failure of understanding, a failure of greeting, a failure of avoidance, a failure of handbook interpretation, a failure in the ratio of reality to ambition, or a failure of the entire world order as it existed at that moment, I don’t know. We had not achieved desired ends, had fallen short and ceased proper functioning, and he had failed the test. We were not prepared to sing a song or write a transformative poem about it any time soon. Failure first wounded and then lured us down, contracting into ourselves. The other people probably felt bad too, wherever they were. I sat on the floor with my knees up and my head hung low between them, making a kind of cave entrance to the place in my stomach that felt punched, even though nobody had touched me. I felt as if my bones were glowing while every other part of me rearranged. It seemed best to stay low. Failure, whether it strikes as an arrow shot from foreign woods or grows slowly from the inside out, is a private pain. We breathed for a long time. My husband looked as if he had been punched too. I thought of the words of the Dao de Jing “Nurture the darkness of your soul / until you become whole. Can you do this and not fail?” (verse 10). Curled inside my body world, I didn’t think I could nurture the darkness, but the other choice, to abandon the darkness and not gather up what might have been abandoned there, also seemed impossible.
My husband started by calling the professor and leaving a message apologizing for offending him in any way. The teacher did not reply, but the director soon withdrew her demands for the self-damning signature after receiving a call from another professor who vouched for my husband being a sincere student and no threat to anyone. All players carried on, perhaps with equal measures of dignity and indignity, having contributed to a soup of misunderstanding that was now to be our most promising source of nourishment. My husband decided to take a semester off from school. He said we should probably have a party now that he had some free time. I overheard him making phone calls to his handful of tai chi students and our neighbors and friends inviting them to a party at our place on Saturday. Lacking any dependable inner sense of time, he told some people one date and others a different date. For one friend he simply left a message on the voice machine—“Please, come to my house!”— without mentioning time at all. That is how we ended up having four parties instead of one and ran out of party money. There had to be a middle way between the extremes of loss and abundance, a middle way defined by practical limitations. We soon discovered it.
The middle way was tai chi and the Middle Kingdom was in our basement. There was a period of incessant hammering and sawing, mostly late at night. The air in the house became fragrant with poplar shavings and nauseating with paint fumes. My husband veered toward carpenter- hood instead of paramedichood. From now on tai chi class would be held at our house instead of the small storefront that was too crowded anyway for his large male students to be “looking for a needle at the sea bottom” or grunting like “Buddhas attendants pounding the mortar.” Another advantage was that vigorous twists of the spine to release bad energy could be explained in terms of the lawn mower’s engine starter much more effectively because the lawn mower with its handle and pull string was right in view. Often my husband insisted that the students stay for supper, so they began to bring gifts like oven mitts, potted plants, and big round, flour-dusted loaves of Italian bread. From the meat aisle of the grocery store we had been failured into our own home. I don’t know how all this will work out. Sometime soon, my husband will start back to school. A medical career is something he wants, a vision to fail into. I know he will do it well.
In Chinese myth, Zhong-kui was a young scholar who, after failing an important examination, committed suicide by dashing his own head against the stone steps of the examination hall. As a ghost, he devoted himself to killing demons and became responsible for ridding the world of the demons, including the horrible demon that made it his business to replace humanity’s joys with sorrows. I believe it was failure and not death that transformed Zhong-kui, an ordinary person, into a first rate demon slayer.
Creation stories, too, always start with serious failures. Creators had terrible trouble producing an acceptable human being. The first ones often came out either too angelic or too demonic. In addition, mythic creators produced beings missing arms, legs, or even bodies, and beings with too many noses, huge flapping elephant ears, or boarish snouts. There were even bodiless flying heads and giant eyeballs rolling around, causing trouble. The first Inuit beings were bad-tempered and impatient. In Tibet, somewhere in the midst of endless cycles of creation and destruction, the first human beings were the hairy offspring of an ogress and a monkey. The Greek Titans turned out much too clumsy and emotional, as did the Germanic giants. Zeus created humans from the ashes of the Titans with a result that was neither too good nor too bad, just so-so. By trial and error, people were failed into being.
To take on faith the theory that failure doesn’t exist is easy for a holy man or a poet, but what if the poet or holy man had to explain himself to a logically minded person on pain of death? What if it were imperative to answer the question, “In what sense does failure not exist?” Fie can’t just pull something out of the folds of his robe, like a loaf or an acorn and say, “In this sense!” And he can’t just blurt out semi-rationally, “To reject failure is to reject the self as it was created, limited like no other, and so creative like no other. Take failure in and give it shelter, give it your attention until it has become something else, something unfailing. In this sense failure doesn’t exist.”
An unreflective mind can be depressed by something that does not exist, and that’s why failure is a worthwhile topic. Just think about the value of jolting setbacks that can make you feel you are junk, or make you want to empty your pockets by having too many parties. Consider the value of limitations that have the power to rein you in and bring you home from a cold meat aisle in the grocery store where you floundered. All the poems, songs, imaginings, and rational arguments in the world still might not convince the logical person who is feeling pain that failure does not exist.
I work as a mental health case manger. People whose limitations keep them from doing most of what they once dreamed of doing have taught me a lot. One man I know, Arthur, had a lifelong St. Francis obsession of his own. He wanted to paint St. Francis but was sure he would mess up. First of all, he could only paint straight lines, never curved ones. It was just not in his nature. But one day he asked me to take him to buy paints—he was ready to have a try. After looking at displays of paint tubes for an hour or more, he came to the conclusion that the perfect color, if it even existed, was not in a tube. “Jeez,” he said, “just my luck.”
On the way home in late afternoon we came down the steep hill into our weary river city and tiny window squares began to light up while far above clouds spread soft skeins of gray and rose. Arthur pointed, “Look! That’s it, that’s the color! Oh boy, oh my goodness gracious, we have a lot to be thankful for, us human beings!”
As I rolled up in front of the apartment complex, Arthur looked happy. He asked if we could look at paint again, that maybe there was a chance he could find some substitute for the right color gray since the perfect color had not been bottled, couldn’t be bottled. I said I would call him. Halfway to the front steps he turned. “Yeah right,” he said, “I probably won’t hear the phone. With my luck, I’ll be taking the garbage out or something. Other Arthurs hear the phone, other people find the right color, meet the girl, get married, and have everything in life just like they want it. I’m the only failure around here. Jeez.”
“Me too,” I said, and for a moment he looked confused.
“Well, thanks for taking me to look at the paint and all,” he said, “and hey, don’t forget to call. I might hear the phone. You never know.”
Arthur did end up buying some paint and having a good try. He painted sparrows that looked like square bomber planes and people that looked like robots. Finally, he settled on brick buildings, which did not require a single curve. The bricks were gray, blue, red, purple, pink, and green. Failure disappoints, shames, crushes, stings, and burns. Yet Cadenza says to failure, “You’ve led me by the hand to the only water that reflects me.” And it led Arthur to rainbow colored bricks. Failure is the point beyond which nothing works. It breaks into parts, shatters into essentials. It doesn’t exist. Yet failure forces open a middle ground where we can exist, if we choose to, in some relation to paramedichood, St. Francishood, or buddhahood. Depend on it. Failure doesn’t exist.
Arthur’s longing to paint St. Francis is a longing for the mundane chaotic where paint needs to be mixed with turps and linseed oil, and soiled knuckles need to be scrubbed with old rags and pumice soap. Arthur’s longing is for a place where people allow themselves to do things according to their ability. It is the middle place he’s never been able to occupy. Arthur still does the work of holy longing, conjuring the graceful image of St. Francis. The longing is the cure. Every Thursday, Arthur volunteers at the hospital, delivering mail to terminally ill patients. Leaning slightly forward over each bed, Arthur’s body makes a gentle curve. He asks the person how they are and thinks up some little joke to make them laugh. He gives them messages from the world. The things he can’t paint and the Arthurs he will never be do not cross his mind. Every Thursday Arthur is St. Francis.