Tag Archives: failure

When to give up

Often, the only way to be absolutely defeated is to give up. Where there is life, there is always scope for trying again – however long it takes to do that. There is something heroic about refusing to give up in face of all setbacks – but only if you come out on top at the end. At what point is it wiser to admit defeat and turn your energies elsewhere?

At what point do you say ‘this is never going to work’? I’ve blogged before about the question of what our dreams cost other people. Chasing your dreams can really take it out of those around you, and if someone else has to pay against their will for something you want to do, pushing on is a lot less heroic and a lot more toxic.

Sometimes, admitting defeat can be a beautiful, liberating thing. We tend to treat failure as something awful and to be avoided, but I’ve come to think of it as a much more interesting thing. As an aside, I must thank Mark Townsend for The Gospel of Falling Down, which re-framed the notion of failure for me. Sometimes, giving up is wonderful, releasing energy into other areas of life.

This weekend, the Stroud Five Valleys walk will take people on a gruelling hike around the area, raising money for a good cause. I’ve managed it a couple of times. This year, I’m not trying. I’ve given up. I feel good about that. It feels like a wise choice, putting my bodily wellness first. I don’t need to do this. I don’t need to prove anything by trying to do it.

It’s when we admit failure that we make room for other people to get in and have a go – and quite possibly do better than us. It’s when we admit defeat that we stop pouring energy into things we can’t make work, and might start looking at what we can do more effectively, instead. When we give up, we’re giving ourselves permission to acknowledge that we are tired, worn out, under resourced or otherwise unequal to the task. Owning your limitations can bring great emotional relief. We all have limits, and we won’t know where those are until we’ve tested them. Once tested, we can make informed decisions.

The dreams we have when we don’t know what we can do, or how anything works, might not be our best dreams. Plugging away at a dream we can’t manifest may be stopping us from finding a better dream. Using experience to inform our intentions is a good idea. Going back to the planning stage and rethinking can give us a better plan with better prospects. There is nothing inherently magical or sacred about our ideas that mean we have to hang on to them no matter what.

There are so many forces that are so much bigger than us. Ultimately, life is a journey towards death. It does us good to learn when to yield and accept. Sometimes there is more grace, more wisdom and more benefit in knowing that you are beaten and letting it go.


Contemplating failure

There’s a lot of positivity culture out there to tell us we can have anything and everything we want. We have to be positive enough, never give up, keep visualising the glorious outcome. It doesn’t take into account that failure is a very real part of human experience. We will all fail sometimes. Being realistic about how and why we’ve failed and what the implications are, is really important.

We can fail through lack of knowledge, experience and skill. It can mean that we just have to pick ourselves up and have another go. Many things require patience and perseverance, and will not come to us quickly just because we want them. Recognising the work involved, and recognising that we may fall short makes us better able to deal with reality than going forth with relentless positivity.

The timing may be bad. We may be unlucky. Things beyond our control may wreck our plans. We may not have the resources to achieve what we wanted. We may need to change tack and study, or practice, or rethink in some other way. These are all common events. They do not represent a failure to be positive enough, and simply being positive won’t deal with them.

How do you tell when you really should give up? How much time and money and energy – yours and other people’s – should you pour into something before you’ll admit it’s a bad loss? When is it time to accept that a dream isn’t viable? There are only personal answers here. A consciousness of failure can help us shift our goalposts to more appropriate positions. When I was a teen, I wanted to be a famous and important author. Experience has taught me to accept that if I can make ends meet and some people like my stuff, that’s probably as good as it can get.

I could dream about one day climbing Everest, but this body is never going to be equal to it. I doubt I could get up even the smallest mountain these days. No amount of positive thinking is going to enable me to run long distances, either. When do we decide what’s possible and what isn’t? When do we give up?

One of the big questions here is around how chasing the dream impacts on others. Imagine the person who goes full time with their dream but earns very little, and whose family has to support them. Imagine that they put little time into their family or friendships, expecting emotional and practical support while they follow their dream. How long can that continue before the dream itself needs questioning. A year? A decade? It’s important to consider what we’re asking other people to sacrifice for the sake of our dreams. Are we making other people put their lives on hold for us? Are we killing their dreams for the sake of our own? Are we making them pay unfairly?

If your efforts and failures and aspirations only really impact on you, then how you live your life is really no one else’s business. Most of us don’t exist in that kind of isolation. Dreams need putting into context, and I think one of the most important measures for failure and for recognising the need to give up, is how much the unrealised dream is costing other people.


Learning to fail

I’m rubbish at failing. Not in the sense that I don’t fail at things – I do so a great deal. More about how I don’t deal with it. Being able to fail is essential for learning. There is no way of learning without making mistakes, and feeling safe to experiment and getting things wrong is essential. Most of us aren’t psychic enough to be able to negotiate all of our human interactions and life choices perfectly, so we need room there to deal with mistakes as well.

When it comes to other people messing up, I think I do ok. There’s room in my head for honest human mess, for good intentions that played out badly, for people not knowing, or realising. Most of the time I can accommodate that.

It’s when it comes to me that the problems start. I expect perfection. It doesn’t matter if I’m under-informed, or under a lot of stress, or haven’t got the skills. I expect myself to get everything absolutely right in all ways for all people all of the time. I know that’s not even possible, but even so, faced with a cock-up or a shortcoming, my body response is panic. I expect to be told off, put down, ridiculed. I expect to be kicked out of spaces for the slightest error. I find it very hard to imagine that anyone can tolerate or forgive me for being less than perfect, and it has to be said that this anxiety puts a lot of strain on my relationships.

It takes a lot of time for me to learn to trust that someone will be ok with me being human.

Of course there’s a lot of personal history tied up in these reactions – I know what of the past is shaping it. Knowing, I have also found, is not the same as being able to not get caught up in something. The head is faster than the rest of the body and unlearning a long-established fear response takes time. I can do it, I have done it in some key relationships.

One of the problems this causes me is that, faced with complaint or criticism, my automatic response is to feel guilt and responsibility and to try and turn myself inside out to appease the person I have offended. I’ve spent much of my life accepting the idea that it is ok for other people to punish me for failing, and the fear of punishment is a big part of my bodily reactions to my own inevitable shortcomings.

One of the big changes this year has been to question this. I’ve become suspicious of the people who want to hurt me for honest mistakes, human imperfections and not magically knowing what they wanted. I’ve become able to hold the idea that I shouldn’t stay in spaces where I am required to hold some kind of superhuman level of all-pleasing perfection.

Perfection is not a human quality. Life is too full of contradictions and conflicting needs for any of us to be able to do all the things perfectly for everyone all of the time. The person who demands that, and who won’t tolerate any kind of mistakes or shortcomings, is basically saying ‘you aren’t a person’. There’s no room in a world where you have to strive for people-pleasing perfection, to have thoughts, feelings or needs that are your own, and that aren’t perfectly convenient to everyone else.

My challenge moving forward is to be kinder to myself around mistakes. Getting something wrong does not make me a failure as a human being. It doesn’t prove that I’m useless and worthless. It doesn’t entitle anyone to attack or hurt me. I don’t have to keep doing on the inside what others have done from the outside. And when someone saunters into my life and demands, and derides, and doesn’t want to hear my side of things, I can use some choice, short Anglo Saxon words to tell them where to go. It’s a theory, at any rate.


The mechanics of faltering

Yesterday I wrote about having a calling but no answer to it, today I want to talk about how that works in practise. I have a regular and dependable burnout cycle, I’ve repeated it over more than a decade, with each cycle taking six to eight weeks, typically. That’s got to be getting on for 50 bouts of getting wiped out physically and falling into pits of despair. If not more.

I have a calling, to write and to serve, and it gets me out of bed in the morning. I run all day, as hard as I can, doing as much as I can, saying ‘yes’ as far as is possible. I throw everything I have at trying to do something worth doing. I don’t take whole days off, and I push my limits until I collapse. I do this because I feel so driven, and because for assorted reasons, I do not feel safe or comfortable about stopping. Then I fall over, and on none of the occasions of my falling over have I achieved enough for that to feel ok. Often the timing is inconvenient. I look at all that I have done, and see how insufficient it is, and depression kicks in. Once again, I have failed. Eventually, I pick myself up from this and try again, promising myself that next time it will work. Next time I will do better. The next project, the next voluntary job, the next book will be the one that makes it all worthwhile.

Repeat.

It is the burnout that causes the despair and the feelings of failure. It is the despair and feelings of failure that prompt me to run like a mad thing towards the next burnout. Clearly this isn’t working, and for the first time I’m coming out of the dark patch of the process and questioning whether the answer is to gird loins and other body parts, brace myself and start doing it all again. I’ve got this audio project on the go, and this one, surely, this one (if I really give it my all) will be the one that gets somewhere…

I’ve started asking what underpins this process. Answers: I move the goalposts because anything I achieve, by dint of my having achieved it, ceases to look as big as I thought it would be. Some of that is learning and perspective – there was a time when I believed all I’d need to do was get a publisher and the rest would flow from there, and that’s not how it works. Some of it is sane, and some of it isn’t. I carry a suspicion that anything I have managed, probably wasn’t good enough anyway. Alongside this, I don’t feel entitled to stop, to rest, to let up, to go easy on myself and I don’t feel entitled to be happy. What this means is that any attempt to break the cycle feels like being lazy. I’m not trying hard enough, unless it actually hurts, and if I’m not trying hard enough, how can I possibly succeed? This is not a game it is possible to win, because there are diminishing returns around morale, confidence and energy reserves. I’ve spent ten years or more beating myself to a pulp on a regular basis for not being good enough and not deserving anything better.

I just can’t put my worn out body and fragile mind through much more of this. Every time I go down, it gets that bit harder to stand up and try again. One of these days, I will not be able to get up, odds are. If I slow down, much less quit, I have to contend with feeling like a failure, and a fraud. I have to face all the little voices (other people’s mostly) that say about how lazy and useless I am and that someone like me could never hope to do anything much. I have to face them being right. The years of running hard have never made them go away, never silenced them either in my head or in my life. I have to accept that there are people for whom I will never be good enough or worthy of respect, and that I do not get to prove them wrong. They’ve helped keep the goalposts moving and there is no winning this game.

It is a hard thing to look your own inadequacy in the face, but there is nothing remaining other than to turn and face it, and accept it. Running and pushing has stripped me of my faith in my own work, robbed me of energy and inspiration. Either I keep running and lose everything, or I stop now and settle for writing books for the tiny handful of people who like them. I salvage what I can and learn to accept that it will do.


A sense of perspective

We spent yesterday in Slimbridge – somewhere we lived for several years. Going back into that landscape brought a rush of all the emotions associated with living there – the fear and anxiety, the pressure we were under, the hideous uncertainties. Those were tough times. I was surprised by how bodily my response was and how it was a response simply to location. We aren’t there any more, in any sense, but the perspective that creates is decidedly interesting.

I can’t say this last year has been easy, either. There’s been much to do, some demanding challenges, steep learning curves, vast amounts of work. There have been scary bits, too, but that’s worked out for the greater part. Much of this stems from being more in demand, having more to do, and playing at a higher level than we were.

Success creates challenges and pressures, but they are nothing compared to the challenges of failure. Working hard to get a job done is a whole other game from working hard to try and stretch a small amount of money far enough. The anxieties around house buying are nothing compared to the anxieties caused by fearing homelessness. (The Canal and River Trust routinely threaten liveaboard boaters with homelessness. Apparently they can square this with being a charity.) The stresses of deadlines and a packed schedule are as nothing compared to the stresses of not being able to see how you’re going to make it all work. We fought our way out of the one and into the other.

One of the things the ‘hard working’ can easily be persuaded to feel about the ‘scroungers’ (to borrow the divisive language of politics) is that to be unemployed is an easy life, just dossing around with everything paid for.  Much of the benefits money in the UK actually goes to working people who just aren’t earning enough to live on. The minimum wage is not a living wage, and part time jobs won’t reliably keep a roof over your head. When you don’t have much money, and have to think about every penny, thing are stressful.

If a sudden request for funding a school trip could compromise your food budget, or means you can’t replace worn out shoes yet… the jugging is intense and unending. What can we cut back on? What can we do without? And so you end up with one in five mothers skipping meals to feed their children. As the government sets up ever more bizarre and pointless hoops for the unemployed and ill to try and jump through, the pressures of poverty become dire.

We were in some ways, just plain lucky. We have privileges on our side – skills and education that enables us to get some brilliant opportunities. I had the time and space to get depression and anxiety under control so that I can work, rather than sinking entirely as so many other people do.  We never stopped believing it was possible (sometimes by dint of taking it in turns), where many people are defeated. It is possible, but that’s a hard thing to hang onto. Once we no longer had to pay solicitors on a regular basis, things became a lot easier. Not everyone’s pressures and problems go away.

To be poor and dependent on the state to any degree, is to live with uncertainty and vulnerability, especially with this current, compassion-free political culture. The stresses of getting somewhere can be huge, but when you feel like you have some control over your life, some scope for hope, that’s really not as bad as the stresses that come from being slowly crushed by life. I have, to a degree, done both. Powerlessness and hopelessness are hellish things to face on a daily basis. We could be a lot kinder to people who are in that situation rather than demonising them.


Putting down the baggage

Baggage is heavy, it slows you down and is easily tripped over. I’m finding at the moment that an array of baggage I’d not noticed I was hauling, is making life hard. The baggage announces that things are bound to go wrong because I’m not good enough and will be judged accordingly. It borrows the voices of everyone who has ever ridiculed and denigrated me, to tell me that failure is inevitable. Important things will go wrong, and they will go wrong because I am inadequate, and letting the side down. But then, no matter how well I’ve done and no matter how difficult the circumstances, there have always been people keen to point out how I should have done it so much better, faster, etc. My mistake was to listen to them.

The baggage I carry most readily is caused by feeling that I’ve failed. The mistakes I have made, my weaknesses, shortcomings and insufficiencies are what haunt me. I can often let go of unkindness that has come to me from other people. I can quite often forgive and forget, or find excuses and justifications for them, that lets them off the hook. I let the people who wound me get away with it, and shoulder a bag full of it-was-all-my-fault, and heft it about. Sometimes the weight of these squashes me and I struggle to move.

It’s taken me a long time to learn how to be wary. I’ve accepted people who have asked me to shoulder the blame. I’ve been reduced to weeping, panicking distress and let myself be persuaded it is my fault for being weak, emotional, demanding… Those are difficult bags to put down. They grow into you after a while. They have become me such that putting them down feels a lot like tearing my own skin off.

I’ve found the best solution is to pick things over and look for other possible explanations. I know I get things wrong sometimes – we all do. It is important to me to understand those mistakes so that I can learn and improve. Mistakes are key to learning. Someone who cares about me will help me make sense of things when there’s a problem. It’s a very basic manifestation of care, that. I do not want to avoid the baggage by deciding that I am always good and right, because that would prevent me from seeing my mistakes, and turn me into someone who requires everyone else to shoulder the blame. That would not be ok.

So I pick things apart, and I look for the exact points at which my judgement was wonky, or I was working from insufficient data, and I try to make sense of them and see what can be learned. So long as I’m not dealing with people who require me to be innately wrong so that they get to always be perfect, the unpicking works. I can make sense of things, resolve things, do better next time. Sometimes I act in haste or in anger. Sometimes I am not as compassionate as I would like to be. Only in owning and holding that can I move forward and change it. Owning it hurts, always. Failure to own it causes a lot more damage. I have learned that I can own and hold a shortcoming, work through to understanding it and then stop beating myself about the head with it. I do not have to drag every failure behind me as I go. I just have to learn and do better next time.


Warning: contains naval gazing

I lost most of yesterday afternoon and evening to a welling up of pain. It’s left me feeling sore and disorientated today. I’m in a place of unpretty introspection. It isn’t what other people do that haunts me, it is the fear of having got it wrong, of not having given enough when it was needed, not being able to offer a sufficiently tolerant and open heart, not being able to take the knocks. I’m a creature of finite resource, no kind of saint, and alert to the ways in which I could have done a better job. Yesterday I was caught in a web of ghosts and mistakes, trying to figure out where I could have done better, in the hopes of not repeating any of it.

I’m fascinated by people who shrug of mistakes and failures, of any magnitude, and move on. I’ve encountered a few folk down the years who were remarkably untroubled by their errors of judgement and acts of unintended cruelty. I’ve met people who genuinely didn’t seem to care when they caused pain. I have noticed an interesting discrepancy though, because the people who feel they should be able to shrug off their mistakes and move on seldom take the same attitude when they feel hurt. If they are suffering, it matters and needs taking seriously. It has also been my experience that people who make less fuss about their own discomfort are often more compassionate when other people are hurting.

I’ve learned the painful way that guilt and regret are the things I am least able to bear. Being hurt by someone else is as nothing compared to what I carry over mistakes I cannot fix, things I cannot undo, or unsay. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way. Poor judgement calls, misplaced expectation, dodgy interpretation… Nothing a person would wind up in court for, just regular human failure born of not seeing clearly, not knowing myself well enough, not getting it right. I pick over these like a scavenger picking bones. If there is a means to put right, I’ll try and do it. At least I can learn, with a view to making new and different mistakes next time.

My most problematic reoccurring mistake goes like this: I accept people as they present themselves, so I fall foul of miss-selling. There are qualities I’m drawn to, and if someone fakes those, I can be suckered in. The bitterness that comes from realising it was all pretend, is horrible. I find it hard to forgive in those circumstances, but I realise it may often be the case that people do not realise they are faking it. They have learned the language of passion and intensity. They’ve learned what sounds dramatic, poetic, inspired and wild. They like the image. Perhaps they do not realise that all they have is a shiny surface. The shock of realising they do not know how to live what they are voicing cannot be comfortable for some of them. The ease with which the shrugging and walking away often follows though, suggests to me that they mostly do not care. They only ever wanted to look the part.

How I let myself get into one of these again? How was I bewitched by the surface appearance, by an illusion of authenticity? Is there some magical way of discerning between people who truly speak from the heart, and people who know how to sound that way? I haven’t found it yet. Do I become cynical and mistrustful, and keep at a distance those who do come into my life open hearted, honest and full of integrity, so as to also keep away the players of games? I oscillate. There are days (yesterday was one such) when I feel no confidence in my ability to relate to people at all, and the call of hermitude is strong. But there are those few souls who were not faking, who have brought depth and wonder into my life, and I would not have that if I’d carefully insisted on keeping everyone at arm’s length.

I’ve been told that I expect too much of people. I have unreasonably high standards, am demanding and unfair. I expect so much that I set people up to fail; they can never be enough to meet my outrageous demands. I’ve looked long and hard at those accusations over a lot of years. There is some truth in it. I can be decidedly all or nothing. I do ask a lot, but I ask no more of others than I ask of myself. Just occasionally, I find someone who isn’t affronted by how I am, someone who does not disappoint, or turn out to be more hot air than substance. In the meantime, what I get is the guilt of feeling that my being let down is a measure of my unreasonableness. The uncomfortable sense that I ask too much and judge too harshly, and that if only I could seek for less, I could enjoy the easy, non-committal, shrug off the mistakes approach of others. I would have to be someone else. Still, there are losses that I grieve, and mistakes that haunt me.


Druidry in a crisis

While I’m mostly going to take the Druid angle for this blog, it could equally be about parenting, or being an author, an artist, or learning to cook. The same broad things apply (I think) to all areas of human endeavour.

There are always setbacks. If you care about what you’re doing and how well you are doing it those setbacks can be brutal. The point of finding out how little we know about ancient Druids is a classic crisis moment for many. The ritual that is a depressing failure. The first time someone calls you out over what you believe and how you express it, the second time… Life experience at odds with spiritual expectation can give us crushing blows. There are a number of ways to go at this point.

You might put belief, including belief in your own rightness before everything else. That can leave people disturbingly at odds with reality. You might be so overwhelmed and distressed that you quit. As possible for parents as for Druids. Neither of these are good outcomes. All that exists on the other side, is getting in there and wrestling with the problem.

When we start anything, we tend to see the bits we’re naturally good at. I have a lot of bard skills, which gave me a mistaken degree of confidence in my ritual skills. It took me a while to learn how to take care of a circle; there were people skills I only later realised I needed. I think this is often the way of it. Only when things go awry do we start to see what we always needed to know but weren’t aware of. That can be a huge confidence blow. There is always more to learn and more to know, and a consciousness of that creates a good degree of insulation from the pain of hitting one of those setbacks. If you know there will be some, you can at least recognise it when it happens, and get on with coping rather than flailing about. It is often only when we start doing things that we get to see where our weaknesses are, and what we need to swot up on. There is no one way of being a Druid, a parent, an artist, so no one can tell you upfront what you ought to try and learn before you start.

That said, trying to learn something, anything, before you start confers significant advantages. Not least, when you hit a crisis, you’ll have some idea where to go to find what you need for moving on. You’ll be more aware of the myriad ways in which other people are doing things, so you won’t expect one right answer, either. That helps. A knowledge base isn’t the same as wisdom, but it is useful!

Sometimes, natural talent is the most destructive thing to live with. If all the evidence says that you are naturally brilliant at a thing, it won’t occur to you to study and craft, to consciously try and develop that. It’s so easy to coast when you think you have natural genius. As far as I can tell, there is only so far anyone can get with that coasting. For some it’s a long way, but always finite. The further you go, riding the wave of innate brilliance, the harder it is when you hit the wall that is your natural limit. The person who expects to have to work, study and practice will get plenty of small bumps along the way, but they tend to be more survivable, and less traumatic.

For aspiring writers, the first crash is usually the first novel. Either unfinished, or eventually loathed, the first novel teaches a person exactly how much they do not know about writing a book. Usually it’s too short, there weren’t enough ideas, its clichéd and overtly a fantasy-autobiography. Doing it can make apparent that you haven’t found a voice yet, don’t have a style, don’t know about pace, or how to handle perspectives or a hundred other things. Hours of work, for something you want to burn. I’ve done it, and seen people do it, and convince themselves that it means they can’t be an author. The awful first book is actually a rite of passage. If you’ve already written a lot of short fics, or poetry, or worked in another form, or have the nightmare of a natural gift, you might skip this, but there’s much to be said for going through it.

This is one of the reasons focusing on superficial measurements of success doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. What you learn about how you need to develop is more important than word counts, or nice robes. There is much to be said for feeling uneasy about what you’ve done and having to go back and find out about all the things you didn’t know. Sometimes, it is good and helpful to fail. The first rejections, the first gaffs and humiliations, the rituals that go wrong because you didn’t know and hadn’t thought, the people who get angry, the mistakes made… these things teach us. They remind us that failure is always an option and that there is always more to strive for. They remind us to try and be patient with other people who fail, and never to get comfortable imagining that we have it all sussed. We never will.


Acceptance and letting go

One of the easiest ways to be hurt, is to have expectations of ourselves, or others, that are not met. When we meet the ‘perfect’ lover, and want them to carry on being perfect in every way, we are setting ourselves up to suffer. When we cannot accept feet of clay in our teachers, human fragility in our friends, the shortcomings of our parents and the mistakes of our children, we create a world of pain for ourselves.

I think we all have to go through the tricky transition from parents as the godlike figures of our infancy, to parents who have power over us and can reward or punish, to parents who we start to see as capable of error. The recognition that our parents are not all-knowing can be liberating, but also alarming. For me, it brought realisation (and relief) that I would not be expected to achieve the divine levels of insight I had formerly been attributing to all adults.

I have certainly turned out to be a failure and disappointment for others along the way. The feeling of never being good enough has haunted my life, and I’ve never been sure whether that was a fair reflection of problematic shortcomings, or that the people around me were maybe judging me harshly. I’m working on just plain accepting that this is what I get sometimes, not beating myself up if I know I’ve done all I could, and not blaming them or getting angry with them for wanting me to be more than I am. We’re all flawed and we’re all in this together.

Acceptance of others and compassion for them is a theme you will find running through all kinds of spiritual writing. However, for the abused child, the beaten spouse, the bullied employee, this is not a good line to take. If acceptance holds you in a dangerous, destructive place, then it isn’t helping. It’s worth taking a step back here. To accept the way someone is, does not mean glossing over it. Acceptance is not saying ‘oh, this is all fine and fair’. Acceptance begins with honesty. Much of the time that means being able to say ‘yes, my friend hurt me with this one, but there was no intent to harm, it was an honest mistake and we can let that go and move on.’

If someone is brutalising your body, heart or mind, then the truth of that needs to be owned. Accept that there is cruelty, malice, or a level of incompetence that is dangerous to be around. Accept that they are unreliable, or outrageously selfish, incapable of empathy, careless, or whatever the issue is. Know it and name it. Then step back from it to an appropriate degree, whether that means offering less, or taking whatever you can carry and getting out the door. If you’ve accepted that someone is toxic to you, don’t stay around to be subject to further bouts of poisoning. You can accept them from a distance. You can feel compassion for them, from a distance.

I’ve met people along the way who have made clear they expected me to be perfectly compassionate and supportive of them, but who could not be asked to ‘walk on eggshells’ for me. It’s curious how eggshells always come up. I’ve stuck around for some of it, too, years in more than one instance. How it works in practice is that the other person gets to open their mouth and let all the anger, frustration, resentment, jealousy and so forth of the moment, spew forth at me. This, I had to take with saintly composure, because not to is ‘unfair’ to them. It is hurtful, attacking, I am not compassionate enough. If they wound me in such an outburst, they may say afterwards that they didn’t mean it, and I am supposed to accept that and be fine. It is unfair of me to want kindness from them, they have to be spontaneous, free to express themselves. But god help me if I take their words with a pinch of salt on one of those rare occasions when they meant what they said.

What I have come to accept is that this is bloody awful to be around. I can never be ‘saintly’ enough to pacify such people. I never give enough and never do a good enough job of accepting their… whatever that is… to make them happy. My discomfort is not to be spoken of. I accept, therefore, that in such situations all I can do is absent myself.

There was a time when I felt that ‘failing’ in me, keenly. I believed that I really should be able to do more, give more, tolerate more. Unwillingness to accept my own flaws (perceived or real) kept me in contact with people who regularly shredded me.

I’m not a saint, nor am I capable of infinite compassion. I recognise that I’ve read a lot about how I should be more compassionate, but find I need to accept my own limits. One of them is that I am no longer prepared to martyr myself to what I increasingly see as other people’s selfishness, and toddler tantrums. Come out a little way to meet me, and I will give you my all. Expect me to bleed myself dry for you, while you speak of eggshells, and I’ll be some other place.


Messing up, with your community

It’s vitally important to be able to make mistakes. It’s very hard to be functional, alive and active without that possibility and virtually impossible to learn if you aren’t allowed to get it dreadfully wrong now and then. However, fear of making mistakes can make a lot of us unwilling to step into the swirling currents of life and have a try. In staying safely on the edges, we miss out.

One of the things I do with workshops, is make a space in which there is no ’wrong’. Doing harmony and chanting last week, I explained that there are soft, melodious harmonies, and there are crunchy, edgy exciting harmonies. There are no ‘bum’ notes. Not really. It’s a good deal easier to open your mouth when the sound emerging will be acceptable. I run bad poetry for the same reason. One can be naturally bad, or hone it as a comedy skill, either way it’s safe to have a giggle. Worst case scenario, someone accidently writes a good poem. That’s not a disaster.

It’s easy, in a workshop space, to create some room for people to play, and for the messing up to not even feel that way. That’s a really happy thing for me, and generally people seem to enjoy it.
A lot of how we feel about failure depends on our community. If the people around you will respond by helping you stand up again, pointing out the bits that were promising, or improving, if they commend you for having a go, and help you feel brave rather than stupid, you’ll do it again. Eventually, the odds are you will get somewhere. If, on the other and, your community is standing around waiting to score points off your failure, to ridicule, and discourage, then you’ll not risk it, try to hide it and generally feel bloody miserable about it. I know what sort of space I want to be in, and what I want to give to those around me, and it is permission to have another go.

Slaughter a song in public, and nobody actually dies. However, there are situations when our messing up matters a lot more. When we go as professionals into life and death situations, when we make choices that shape other people’s futures. Messing up a relationship and accidentally breaking another person’s heart is not so simply resolved as a burned attempt at cooking a meal, or a picture with some really dodgy perspective. There are things we should be afraid to fail at, and things we need to feel shame over getting wrong. So often in my experience, this has not been the case. Professional image is more important to many people who have one, than actually doing the right thing. Holding on to status, importance and self-belief is more valuable to many of us than compassion. Jo over at Octopus Dance has been pondering this one too – http://octopusdance.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/namaste/#comment-888 why are we so unkind to each other? Because so often we are afraid of our own failures and shortcomings being exposed. Rather than put effort into not messing up, we put effort into justifying ourselves and blaming others, and when we do that, our communities suffer.

And then there is the not rejecting entirely the people who fail us. I do not advocate forgiving those who deliberately abuse, but recognising the humanity of those around us. Giving second chances. Holding spaces in which it is possible to relinquish pain and move on. Several of the relationships I hold most dear have been tested to nearly breaking point by circumstance and error, and it was what happened in the depth of crisis that really defined trust and connection for me. The easy option is to walk away. I do that sometimes too, when I hurt too much, or when I have no reason to think there is any point trying.

It takes courage to own our mistakes. I’m so very glad of the people kind enough not to blame me for mine, and who were there to try again, and who listened to explanations and helped me learn how to do better. I am a very flawed and sometimes failing thing. Many of us are, but sometimes when we put those clashing, wounded notes together we end up with something that sounds like a very powerful kind of music.