Of failure and compassion

I re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun recently, and one of the themes has stayed with me. There’s a young, female character who is so pure and innately virtuous for most of the book, she has no capacity for feeling compassion for the failure of others. Believing that all should be as virtuous as she is – by the standards of the day – she can’t relate to the short comings of others, cannot empathise, and is of little help as a consequence.

The more I think about this, the more I realise how easily done it is. Those places we have not been, can so readily look like weakness, shortcoming, lack of proper effort… Mental health is a case in point. From the outside, depression can look like an ailment of not getting your act together, a failure to try, an excess of self pity, a lack of work ethic. From the inside it’s all very different, but for people who haven’t been there, it can be hard to understand.

Many of the same things can be said of poverty. The sense that if only poor people made a bit more effort, they wouldn’t have all these problems. When you’ve grown up in an educated, well off enough and aspirational family, the impact, both practical and psychological, of living in total poverty is hard to understand. We are collectively slow to recognise the existence of things we don’t really understand, and quick to judge. Crime is another one, we blame it on lack of moral character, greed, laziness, an unpleasant nature, and don’t look hard enough at the diets, mental health and education levels of so many people who end up on the wrong side of the law.

The person who has never messed up, never acted in desperation, never succumbed to temptation, probably doesn’t exist, and if they did, they’d be vile. However, it’s all too easy to refuse to acknowledge our own failings, holding a sense of importance, perfection and justification that leaves no room for compassion – either for ourselves, or others. It’s always easier to see other people’s shortcomings, to turn the blame outwards and not to recognise what we do ourselves.

There’s incredible emotional power in failure. It’s a great teacher of how to get things right, a great test of determination and dedication. If we face our own mistakes, shortcomings and stupid moments, it’s easier to be more accepting of the ways in which other people do those too. We’re all human, we all mess up. The person who can admit it, can move on. The person who has to hold an image of perfection in their own eyes, cannot progress. Worse yet is the person who needs everyone else to believe they are faultless and excellent in all things and who will reshape the world to meet their need, at least in their own imaginations.
Falling down and getting up again are part of the journey. If we ask each other to be perfect, we are asking each other not to be human. That seems true in so many workplaces right now, and it’s not workable. We fall, we fail, we make the wrong call. Acceptance of that enables experimentation, real progress, and scope to haul each other up again when needed.

In the meantime, Gods save us from the shining ones who imagine that they are superior and incapable of error, and who crush mere mortals under their boots for imagined shortcomings, much less real ones. As Oscar said, we are all lying in the gutter. Some of us are looking at the stars, I’d like to add that some of us have eyes shut and fingers in ears, la la la I am not in this gutter at all. You miss the stars that way, and the gutter, and everyone else.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Of failure and compassion

  • John Andersen

    I have learned far much more from my failings than any other source of learning in my life. Well stated!

  • Symbian

    Failings (if Not Fatal) are The Best Teachers durring our Existance, Failings also remind us Two other important Lessions They Teach Us all about VALUE, and perhaps a big Whopping Dose of Humility ! and the Upside as well are those who get a chance to witness us failing – can be sympathetically blessed by a percieved Lesson learnt by Witnessing ! (Pebble thrown into a Pond) Much Love Nimue ! ❤ Thank you for Posting !

  • Jennifer Tavernier

    Actually, I have gotten to a point where I kinda get jazzed by a fail, or oopsie. It is an opportunity for growth and freedom. (Maybe not right at the moment!) , but the lag between being able to take responsibility for it, is shorter. I was very lucky to learn long ago, that if one honestly strives, through whatever honest method, to rehone, look, and push through so that they themselves become a bit more unblocked, to reach some understanding encompassing the subject, even if it is just a little at first, there are either brilliant rainbows on the other side, or suddenly, the understanding outweighs that justified sense of irritation one can so ‘righteously’ hold out to others to view. (So how right I am!) Blech!

    I found it totally true for me, that if there is an sandpapery or affronted irk with something, I MYSELF HAVE IT TOO! to some degree. If I didn’t have it there, I would not see it as an insult or judgement, or be bothered by it. Instead, I would be more willing to seek understanding if it was something rather unreal to me or be honest enough to say, “I” have trouble with that – and I am trying to find out why.

    Once I got that this works, Some of the coolest and funnest and most mind bending leaps have been experienced. It is kind of like, one’s own sense of honor, and quest for excellence in understanding. And that results in freedom for self, AND others.. I find it a rather worthy pursuit, to achieve the freedom to stand in the wind, and to have an increased resilience to perceived curves being thrown at me.

    Am I perfect at this? Oh my, NO! – BUT! I HAVE gotten very good at noting it down, and looking – or spotting moments of urghh – and actually have gotten sensitive enough to realize – I don’t like feeling like this – there is a pocket of stopped stuck attention. And I will look, to reach
    some kind of resolution. The more one starts doing this, the easier and faster it is, and it seems to directly be reflected in one’s environment, and the people or situations one deals with. You may think that you can’t do anything to change someone’s situation, but it is directly amazing what happens when you simply treat someone with an honest open respect, and not a closet-full of past conceptions or misconceptions. Being in the moment as much as possible is really fun! And this seems to apply to physical tasks requiring practice or learning, beating the wall down, or in a magnified way of dealing with people. Sometimes, they are so positive that someone is going to lash out at them, mentally or spiritually – (and that energy is REAL, and felt) – that it is rather delightful to watch the surprised look on their face, when there is no brick wall in front of them. You literally, made someone’s day! But the end result, to me, is watching yourself and that which you’re dealing with get a bit bigger. And done honestly, it does get addicting. lol! And personally, I think being willing to confront or take whatever amount of responsibility, makes the world a bit saner. At least that is working for me. It’s kind of a cool way to “pass it on”.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Nimue!

  • celticchick

    This is a good quote to think on: Don’t judge a person unless you have walked in their shoes.

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