By Suzy Singh
Can society, in general, be more compassionate towards failure, and recognize it for the powerful growth tool it is, asks Suzy Singh
She sat with her head clutched between her hands. Every pore of her being was drawn inwards, trying to focus on the terrible internal crisis she was struggling with. Then she let out a wail, so excruciatingly painful that it filled the room with instant grief. Radhika had just come face to face with her biggest failure. Even though it had seemed like just another event only moments ago, it now felt like an unpardonable sin. In a fit of fury, she had slapped her six-year-old child sharply across the face, in full public view at an upmarket departmental store, simply because the child had insisted on buying more chocolates. As she sat in my clinic now, reliving that incident and processing it, she couldn’t help but feel that she had failed as a mother. Radhika’s mother had treated her in much the same way as a little child. Not once, but over and over again, she had judged and criticized her, neglecting her need for love and affection and calling her a loser. All these wounds had created endless destructive patterns, which she was now trying to address in therapy. This is exactly why her worst nightmare was to become the person she hated so much. As she sat there, introspecting upon her failure, a new, more compassionate awareness began to take birth in her. Her hatred towards her mother began to ebb as she empathized with her mother’s personal struggles and conflicts.
She also became acutely aware of the neglect and loneliness her daughter was facing, given the estranged relationship with her husband, and her long hours at work. Embracing failure allowed Radhika to make kinder choices. That day she decided to cut back her working hours, spend more time listening and playing with her daughter, and heal her hatred for her mother. Radhika was lucky that she had help in making failure appear less daunting. But in the absence of a shoulder to lean on, or a guiding finger to point them in the right direction, many people condemn themselves to failure.
High School teacher, art critic, and curator, Uma Nair had to be her own guide and light. “When my marriage failed, I became a recluse and even contemplated suicide. Later, I spent time with boys from my school who were depressed. Two shared that they were considering suicide. I talked them out of it, and as I did that, I realized I was helping myself too. Then I went to Washington DC and saw an art exhibition and started writing about art. Helping struggling artists became my mission. Today, it gives me great joy to put the spotlight on an artist who has no money but loads of talent.” Uma allowed failure to become the instrument of evolution and personal growth. By helping others find courage in the face of hopelessness, she found purpose and meaning in life. Civil rights activist and poet, Maya Angelou, captures this quite succinctly when she says, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” It is possible that Uma may never have become such an inspiring teacher, brilliant art critic, or supporter to struggling artists if her marriage had not failed.
In his insightful book, Outwitting the Devil, Napoleon Hill wrote, “I have also discovered that there comes with every experience of temporary defeat, and every failure and every form of adversity, the seed of an equivalent benefit.” He adds, “I do not pretend to understand all about this strange force which reduced me to poverty and want, and filled me with fear, and then gave me a new birth of faith through which I have been privileged to extend help to tens of thousands who found themselves slipping… Infinite Intelligence has a plan, or a law, by which it hurdles men over many obstacles before giving them the privilege of leadership or the opportunity to render useful service in a noteworthy fashion.”
In the popular book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom, Eddie the central character, considers himself a failure because he always dreamt of moving up the social class, but ended up in his father’s footsteps as the maintenance man at Ruby Pier’s amusement park. He thinks his life on earth is totally wasted. But after his death, when he meets the five people in heaven, he realizes that being at his boring job was of great value because it made all the children there feel safe. Tala, the little girl whose death he unknowingly caused, tells him that was how he made good for causing her death.
While there is now much evidence and even acceptance that failure can lead us to success, failure’s vital role in helping humans become a more evolved species, is still not fully acknowledged. Why is failing such a terrifying idea for most people? "Failing feels like a threat to survival. It’s almost as though those who can’t achieve, won’t survive. That kind of primal fear is what creates an intolerant attitude toward failure," says Sadia Saeed, founder, and chief psychologist, Inner Space Counselling.
Adds Dr. Niru Kumar, psychologist, Reiki Master, and hypnotherapist, “Any situation or position which is ‘less than before’, is considered a failure. This could be in terms of designation, finances, children’s achievements, marital status, physical health, psychological state, and physical appearance. There is very little tolerance for these kinds of setbacks in life." Lynn de Souza, founder, Social Access Communication, says, “Society in general, views poverty of any kind as a failure. This includes the inability to buy whatever one needs or desires. Therefore, anything that is seen as limiting progress or growth or development of any kind, of the individual, the family, and society at large, is frowned upon. Failure is the inability to use one’s talents to add to one’s possessions.” Perhaps if he had known how to deal with this fear of failing, Nipun N, the depressed fourth-year student of Aerospace Engineering, IIT Kharagpur, may not have ended his life last month. When we lock ourselves in the prisons of rigid stories and beliefs of how to belong, and what we must do in order to be loved and accepted, we set up death traps for ourselves. We start to believe that failing is equal to death. But failure is simply feedback, informing us that we need to find a more effective way. It is our faulty beliefs that make failure appear so brutal. As a lesson, failure is simply instructive, but as a dead end, it appears to be fatal.
Parents must strive to make failing more acceptable if they truly want to be loving and supportive. I have consciously brought up my children on the dictum that they must ‘play to win, and lose to learn’. Failure must become an evolutionary concept that makes us better people. Then it can truly become a blessing, an instrument for developing faith, self-love, personal integrity and strength of character. Innovation Coach and TEDx Speaker, R Sridhar, shares how his father helped him deal with failure. In April 1969 when he had done really badly in his BSc exams, he told his Dad that he would either fail or just about scrape through. “So do you want to study further or start working?” his father asked. “I told him I wanted to start working.” On hearing this response, his father asked him to start looking for a job right away. “Who will give me a job? My results are not even out yet,” asked a surprised Sridhar.
“Well, that’s the point,” said his father. “You beat the results, and get a job before your results are declared.” And that’s what Sridhar did. He got his first job with a management consultant and finally passed with a third class. On that day, his boss asked him why he was feeling so low. On being told about the poor grades, his boss commented, “I don’t confuse myself between a third class graduate and a third rate person. Now forget about your results and get on with your work.” It was the supportive and loving guidance of his father and boss that taught him to look failure in the eye and not be fazed by it.
Nithya Shanti, a spiritual teacher, suggests, “Instead of talking about grades and marks, parents should talk about insights, learnings, and experiences. We usually learn most from reflecting on what didn't go well. Celebrate failures as a family. Call it an ‘Oops’ and discuss the learnings in an atmosphere of lightness and laughter. Such kids go on to change the world. This means, instead of defining failure as not measuring up to some arbitrary standard, we can define it as ‘not trying’. That's it. Keep trying. Forget about success and failure.” Sridhar adds, “The best way to help children overcome the fear of failure is to help them understand early in life what they are really good at. Teach them to play to their strengths. If a child is weak in maths, the heavens are not going to fall. If the child shows promise in music or sports or languages, help the child develop in that area.”
If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will realize that we have all failed sometime, somewhere. As children, we meet with it when we don’t get good grades or are shamed by teachers and authority figures. In relationships, being dumped or heartbroken or divorced feels as though we have failed to hold on to love. At work, not getting that promotion or increment can break our spirit. And not amassing wealth and status symbols can make us believe that we don’t deserve enough, that we have lost the race to grandeur. In a Facebook-obsessed society, where you are flooded with messages every second about what a wonderful and accomplished life others are living, you can feel like a failure every time you scroll down your mobile screen. Even in death, failure does not fail to teach us. When our parents die, so many people are struck with the terrible regret of having failed to be good sons and daughters, because they didn’t do enough.
If failure is such a steady, traveling companion through life, can it really be such a terrible thing? Perhaps we have failed to comprehend what its real purpose is. Assuming it is a dreaded monster, we have failed to recognize that it is probably an angel of transformation, always by our side, ever willing to instruct us when we steer off the golden path of becoming instruments of God. This is how Lynn views her life. “I believe I am just an instrument in God’s larger plan for the world and for me. Every day, I am doing what He needs me to do with the talents He has given me. Society may view what I do from one day to the next with its own yardstick of failure or success, but I don’t. As long as I achieve what I have set out to do, whether to write something, or help someone, or lead a group or whatever, and I do it to the best of my ability, with no holding back and making no excuses, I am satisfied.”
When failure is embraced in this way, and perceived as a medicine for the soul, it can bring forth astonishing results. It can mend pride and arrogance, vanity, and hopelessness. And in its place, it creates room for courage and patience, tolerance and generosity, empathy, and compassion to germinate, grow and bloom into the lotus of beauty and peace that lives in the world, but remains untainted by its unmindful judgments.
Suzy Singh is a transpersonal therapist, karma coach, and energy healer with extensive clinical experience in multidisciplinary approaches to vibrational and spiritual healing. Her practice is based out of Delhi.
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