Practicing Failure

Practice kindness. Practice piano. Practice yoga. Practice my spiritual disciplines. (I do three of these things.)

I practice to sharpen my skills and to experience the pleasures of the activity itself. I tend not to practice things that are simply too hard; at least, not any more. (Goodbye, piano!)

No, that’s not quite right. I will practice hard things when the benefits to myself and others outweigh the “try-fail-try again” struggle loop. Wait, that’s not quite right either, because of that word “fail.”

Failure happens when we don’t achieve a goal. Fine. Not doing what we set out to do is a routine life occurrence and a testament to our striving, seeking, purpose-fueled living.

The word “failure,” though, is one of those radioactive words that connotes huge meaning even without any accompanying facts. It immediately personalizes an event or action and saps us of power.

The good news is that the radioactive kind of failure, I think, is not an objective truth but instead a creation of our own minds, a story. And stories are tricky things. They conflate with and overcome the facts themselves until a circumstances like, say, leaving your child at daycare 50 minutes past closing time becomes this whole narrative about unfitness. (Not based on a true situation: it was 55 minutes.)

The germ of truth is still there — oops! I failed to tell Kevin I’d be working late — and yet all this glop surrounds it, a veritable stew of self-blame: a carrot for this, a potato for that, and that hunk of meat over there? Ugh.

That story can keep me busy for hours.

So I’m thinking. Fearing failure, do I only practice the things I already do reasonably well? Do I avoid trying to learn the things that might risk a cascade of boulders crashing down on my head?

Unrestored temple near Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia

That’s a telling metaphor: I just equated failure with annihilation. And that’s a complete invention.

So let me try this. Failure happens when we don’t achieve a goal. Fact. We employed a certain amount of skill, devoted a certain amount of preparation and invested a certain amount of effort. Fact. Now our judging minds set to work, evaluating the whole enterprise not through a pair for finely crafted lenses but through a whole stack of eyeglasses, my own and a whole lot of others’.

Yes, we might have internalized other people’s views; the metaphor conveys that. My point here, though, is that when we look at the facts before us we simply don’t see them clearly. There’s too much distortion.

And that distortion becomes the story. And the story becomes the fact. And it takes over completely, so that all we remember about the fact is the story we built around it. The result? We react to the story — the invention — not to the thing itself.

I’m talking about getting in our own way. I’m not talking about those ineffably horrible events that rattle us to the core. Stories emerge from these too, for our protection. That’s a different conversation, for another time.

So. Failure. Stories. Maybe I need to practice my reaction to failure. I would start at the beginning: Worthy goal? check.  Skill? check.  Preparation? check.  Effort? check.

Effect? Not what I’d hoped. Ok, I got that. The result is in my hands, its own solid glass cube of incident.

Now enters my meaning-making mind. Option One: weave a narrative that makes myself or another wrong. Option Two: examine the choices I made, think about what I would do differently and, if I hurt someone — and I often do — restore trust.

This is so hard. For me, placing failure in its rightful objective place requires practice.

Dancing goddesses at Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom, Cambodia

I have a few tricks. One of them is to soften my jaw. I clench, I tighten; my kids say I’m tense even when I smile, and they have proof. So when I’m tempted to make myself or another wrong, I try to soften myself. (Tip: do NOT tell me to breath; my flames are fueled by oxygen.)

And when I soften myself, I am literally able to hear things and see things more clearly, as they actually are instead of as the invention of my accumulated hurts. And then I act in response to what is, instead of the meaning I’ve unhelpfully impute to it.

Because a negative meaning — even if it is exactly what the other intends — rarely leads me to compassion or connection. And it certainly impedes my ever-quest for calm.

I want to be compassionate and connected and calm. So now I’m practicing something even harder for me than piano: paying attention when I affix negative meaning to words spoken or things done. And then I practice softening myself to release those meanings before I respond.

Hard, hard, hard. (Ask my poor dear husband, who can’t crack a joke around me in certain situations without unleashing my baffling ire.)

I wish I could ask for a re-do of all the times I reacted to the story in my overheated head instead of to the facts before me. Not possible.

So, I move forward, a bit more aware of how my choices affect my responses. And I’ll leave “stories” for my blog posts instead.

I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community blogging site at  Scroll all the way down and check out the other short essays on the topic of “Practice.”  

9 thoughts on “Practicing Failure

  1. princessofthelaundrybasket May 11, 2019 — 1:09 pm

    Very wise words. You’re so right about our need, and yet not our automatic reaction, to separate fact from meaning when it comes to failure. I failed to get a new job recently – and can certainly tick off goal, skill, preparation, and effort. But I failed because there someone else, with more experience, was chosen. Not my fault, even though it hurts. It’s taking a lot of practice to stop myself going over comments made and reading new meanings into them. I’m going to try your softening technique though, especially when it comes to criticism – I think my husband will appreciate it too.
    Your |FMF Neighbour #46


    1. Dear Neighbor — Thank you for sharing your story. Disappointments hurt, no question. Sometimes, I think my “self-talk” (trying to help) often gets in the way instead. Yes, let’s learn, and then keep moving. (Johnny Cash’s version of “I Won’t Back Down” is playing right now. Soft and still STRONG.) I wish you all the best. Stay in touch, friend. Carol Ann


  2. Yes! How often we must practice failure and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! And softening… my wife often will squeeze my hand in this particular way and ask me what’s wrong, when I hadn’t even realized I was tensed up over some perceived failing in my head!

    Thank you also for inviting me to post my link here. I’m glad you enjoyed mine as well. Cheers!


    1. How lovely, Rhiannon, to remind me that our spouses are our allies (as well as beneficiaries) in our quest for softening — and practicing failure. I’m also thrilled you posted a link to your beautiful blog.

      Fashioned for Joy readers, check out Rhiannon’s poem, linked above. Here’s one magnificent line: “It is a practice to live/Because nothing is perfect/Except the chance…”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. By all rights life was disaster,
    and a dead loss, given where I’ve been,
    I had the tools, but couldn’t master
    all the spoken where and when.
    But know this clear, I am still standing
    when the rest would had fled
    from cancer’s hard rough handling,
    and from the pain of being bled.
    Hope arises, every morning
    and resolve rules the night.
    Vicious pushback is a-borning
    and I intend to win this fight.
    So bring the judgement and the shame,
    but the fearful devil knows my name.

    #1 at FMF this week.


    1. Dear Andrew — Thank you for sharing this moving reflection. I truly believe this: “Hope arises, every morning/
      and resolve rules the night.” Stand, fight. I’m with you.


  4. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and challenges that I can relate to. I consciously try to relax my shoulders when I’m stressed or upset and the act of doing that resets my perspective a bit.
    You know my niece is heading off to Cambodia at the beginning of July (noticed pictures in your piece)


    1. Hi, Eileen. I appreciate your reminder that how we hold our body can increase or relieve stress. My fingers remember when I’m writing, but the rest of me forgets in real life. And thanks for noticing the Cambodia pictures. Your niece will have an amazing time!


  5. Enjoyed your piece and can’t wait to read more- yes failure and the stories we tell around it, I am trying to re-create my story the hero journey- my body feels liked it has failed me, so hmm what can I do, I try and accept it, breathe and put back into the universe more love but for some reason, I feel in a circular loop- much more work to do, my friend


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