Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What is failure?

I have to admit something that no one likes to see, much less admit seeing, in oneself. It is that I have absolutely no true confidence in myself or in my ability. I think this lack of confidence, or perhaps my ability to recognize it now, hinges on a fact of life to which we are all subjected--that is, that I can have
Pablo Picasso, "Acrobat" 1930
absolutely no certainty about anything. It seems, the more reflective I become, the less I can be certain of things--not only those things which others might have me believe as true, but also of those things in myself which I had always accepted or assumed to be true.
My whole self, really, is nothing but opinion and it feels as though the thoughts and reflections I have are not essentially my own, but are the result of influences upon me, whether social or historical (or both). And even this conclusion is not authentic to me but is at best a synthesis of the ideas and reflections of others, though made real to me through my own experience. In some ways, this lack of certainty, while being a fact of human existence, seems maybe more akin to me than to most of those around me, or at least they are better at playing the game of "what I'm doing with my life." They seem to pursue, without any hesitation, the building blocks of the life that is proposed to us. It is like their path is determined by those blocks themselves. Once they have achieved a block, their next step is determined by the location of the next block. They have learned to live life like a video game and they accumulate all the points. Yes, they do end up with many building blocks, and they build the life they have been taught to desire. Is it the life they imagined for themselves? Who established the goal? Who set the game in motion? Accumulating points is fun and addictive--in some cases the goal doesn't matter, but then, the goal is assured if one plays by the rules and works only to pefect one's skill within those boundaries.
I was in a true funk this weekend, and with a real desire to escape my own mind the best I could do was flee the apartment. I went to the bookstore and found a recording of E. E. Cummings reading from his play him (see below) and other poems. In my particular mood, I felt an immediate sympathy with the description of
his own uncertainty as a feat of acrobatics; three chairs balanced on a wire, eighty feet in air. I am an artist. I am a man. I am a failure.
What is failure?

For me, the blocks don't build, the points don't add up to being an accountant or a dental technician or a veterinarian, the goal isn't clear. Clarity, certainty have always eluded me and I manage to leave my blocks behind as I pursue a new thing totally unrelated to the last. "So how does working on a farm relate to a degree in divinity?" "Why are you in divinity school if you are interested in education?" I'm wearied by these questions; wearied and discouraged more by my attempts at a true response. Because in fact, I do not know. A sense of failure is directly related to the approval we seek from others, or at best to our own desire to fit in and measure up, and if possible, just a little bit higher and beyond where we are expected to fit. We not only want to "make a contribution" but to make a sensational contribution. We want recognition, validation. There are certain jobs we'd "never do!" after achieving a certain level of education or material comfort or prestige of another kind. I feel an enormous pressure to perform, succeed, achieve. But I believe my essential nature is to wander and learn.

Can I be a confident wanderer? Can I be content with never arriving? I have many skills, and enough experience and funny stories to fill volumes. I feel a desire to express myself as I am doing here. But I am not confident that I can make an authentic contribution to this
"Chair on Chair" by Michael Pfleghaar
life. I don't know what it means to be true to myself when all that I am is the synthesis of what has come before, and so much of what I say or do is reaction, not action; an unconsidered response to social pressure, perceived or imperceptible, and years of conditioning. I have never learned how to be myself. I have only been taught to perform, achieve, and measure myself against the standard..
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes that there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps it may be too bold, too selfish to desire to think newly and independently, without influence. Is there anything new that can be said or done? And isn't the importance I place on coming up with something new and different only the obvious product of an obsessive commercial culture?
I am not certain of anything. Yet, certainty seems to be the opposite of failure.
If you can tell me, how can confidence be found in not-knowing? Can wandering be a goal in itself? Can it be useful to society, can it be a life's work? Can a contribution to life be built by one who doesn't accumulate blocks? Can I please be defined by my humanity, by my life's experience, by my insights...and not by my ability to fit in?
Please don't ask me what I'm planning to do with my degree.
Ask me sincerely what I've been thinking about lately...

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