Acknowledging & Responding to Personal Failure
The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall – Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of the most difficult things to deal with in life is personal failure. A big reason for this is because we live in a culture that puts so much emphasis on success. Developing as a child and meeting milestones. Going to school and achieving good grades. Making friends and building social status. Getting into a top college or university. Obtaining a great job. Getting in excellent shape. In these and almost every area of life, we’re told it’s all about success. Nothing else matters.
Our culture doesn’t prepare us for it. But, the fact remains that we all still have to face failure – weekly, if not daily. It’s there when we lose ourselves in anger. It’s there when we speak insulting and hurtful words to others. It’s there when we don’t fulfill our end of the bargain at work. It’s there when we don’t eat as healthy as we planned. It’s there when we neglect our own emotional states. And, it’s there when personal relationships in our lives erode and crumble.
As human beings, then, our failures are more frequent than we would like to admit. So, how do we move forward in this kind of climate? Well, the first thing we need to do is to simply acknowledge our failures. This may sound easy, but it is anything but. To admit that we have failed, even in one instance, is extremely difficult.
One big difficulty is that acknowledging failure is a very serious threat to our ego. As we all know, our ego loves illusions, and one of the illusions it holds very dear to is an idealized sense of self. To the ego, we are rational, decent, caring, and cooperative. We can never be anything but exemplary in our every thought, word and deed.
Another obstacle is our fear of emotional pain. We fear the surface level emotions that come when we first acknowledge our failure – the guilt, shame, regret, anger, etc. We also fear the more heart-felt feelings that arise shortly thereafter: deep sorrow for the pain we caused in another, sadness at not being true to our self and the hurt of knowing that we cannot undo what we did. These later feelings are all the more painful, as they emerge from the very depths of our soul, our true selves.
So, how do we move past these obstacles and finally come to the point of acknowledging our failure? To do this, the one thing we need is a deep sense of humility. This should not be confused with humiliation. We do not want to throw our hands up in the air, curse ourselves as the most wretched person who ever walked the face of the earth, and start preparing for our own funeral. The humility that we need, in order to recognize and admit our failure, is a sincere, heart-felt desire, openness, and attempt to see the truth. The truth about what we did. The truth of who we are. The truth of where we fell short. It is a state in which we allow ourselves to be completely vulnerable, put down our defenses, and make a courageous effort to see reality as it actually is. In allowing ourselves to enter into this state of deep humility, we are then capable of seeing our personal mistakes in their full light and of admitting our true responsibility. And, this can be done without self-condemnation, guilt and personal agony.
But, cultivating humility and acknowledging our failure is just the first step – however huge and difficult it may be. In order to fully deal with failure, we need to make a sincere effort to get back up and try again. Of course, it may be very painful to try again, and there may be nagging thoughts that we will likely fail in the same area in the future. This is the allurement of despair – and alluring it is. But, although we may have doubts and feelings of hopelessness, the act of getting back up and trying again is extremely healing and beneficial. Ralph Emerson even goes so far as to say that it is one of the most redeeming acts we can ever do in our entire lives: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
The reason why getting back up and trying again is so ‘glorious,’ in Emerson’s words, is because it represents a deep inner acceptance. An acceptance of yourself as a person. An acceptance of your weaknesses and strengths. An acceptance of your past decisions. An acceptance of your emotions. An acceptance of the many struggles you know you’ll face in the future. By association, it also represents a profound acceptance of life itself and of humanity in general – in all their limitations and shortcomings. This is the way life is. This is the human condition. When we do not get up and try again, but simply wallow in our shortcomings, we, of course, take the very opposite approach: we entrench ourselves in a deep state of non-acceptance, a refusal to acknowledge our mistake, our ourselves, and life itself.
When we pick ourselves back up, and in that act, come to experience full acceptance, the light begins to shine. Hope emerges, challenges do not seem as difficult, and there is a new-found compassion for other people – particularly for those who have failed in significant ways. But, more importantly, is the fact that with this full-range of acceptance, and the courage to try again, comes an inner peace (however small) that you would not trade for anything else in the world.