There were many bad words circling around my brain as a child but I was smart enough (or fearful enough of an ass whooping) never to say them out loud.
Most of them were fed to me by my mischievous older brother who egged me on with dares such as asking my father what a condom was (I never did get an answer though I did get a slap across the knees). The remaining dirty words I learnt whilst sneak reading Judy Blume’s Forever under my duvet.
Whilst I didn’t really know the meaning of these words, somehow I intuitively knew that my nine-year-old self should not be saying them. Funnily enough out of all the bad words I’d amassed in my newly burgeoning dirty dictionary, failure was not one of them. Whilst most of the words in my dictionary of filth elicited a sly giggle, this F word was met with stony silence.
Failure, in any of its failing forms was seen as rather taboo. Whether it was failing a test at school, or failing to show up to school, it was deemed to be a Very Bad Thing. My younger self internalized this into the following premise: Bad People Fail and Good People Succeed. It wasn’t until years later that I realized just how restrictive this line of thinking was.
In some respects this gnawing fear of failure was useful; it lit a rocket launcher named Ambition under my ass. I was going to succeed at all costs, through gritted teeth and dogged determination. What I had failed to realize is that there is actually a flipside to failure. Yes it can be debilitating to fail at something, a swift slap to the ego. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that failure comes with a silver lining.
Failure can actually teach us something. Whether it highlights your weaknesses or showcases areas of stubbornness, either way it’s a learning experience.
Out of the many successes that I’ve been grateful to experience there have been an equal number of failures. The successes might have felt wonderful whilst simultaneously stroking my ego, in hindsight they didn’t teach me as much as the failures did. I’m not advocating that we focus on failure instead of striving for success. Yet it’s important to remember that if we find ourselves diving head first into a big stinking pool of failure, eventually we will claw ourselves out. And we will learn something.
Over the past few years I’ve come face to face with failure and looked deep into its dark and deceptive eyes. I recently walked away from an 11 year relationship that I had always looked upon as one of the greatest successes in my life. It was heart breaking. We’d been through so much together, fought side by side through the trenches of adversity as life aimed its bullets at us.
I found myself suddenly single at 35 and feeling very much like a failure in the game of life. And so, with a heavy heart I took myself off to Central America for 6 weeks to lick my wounds and ponder where it had all gone so terribly wrong.
What I discovered was this. I had initially viewed the failure of this relationship like a secret closet brimming with dark emotion; a place where blame was laid neatly on top of a folded pile of anger and resentment. What I had failed to notice were the life lessons tucked away in the back.
When I felt brave enough to bring these lessons out into the light of day, it was revelatory. Sifting through those fraught emotions from the final years of the relationship as it died its slow death; I stumbled upon so many different nuggets of wisdom. I marveled at how far I had come from that naïve 24 year old, newly in love and feeling indestructible.
Eleven years later I was a completely different person. The relationship had taught me so much about who I am, what I wanted out of life, and most importantly of all, what I didn’t want. I learnt that I was far tougher than I had ever given myself credit for. I came face to face with my flaws. I also learnt, oftentimes to my detriment, just how much of myself I was willing to give to another person. And on the flipside, just how much shit I was willing to take.
The most important lesson of all was that I learned to fall back in love again. This time with myself. I learnt that the relationship you have with yourself is one of the most important relationships you will ever have in life. I learnt to cherish it, and to fiercely protect it.
Had I simply written off this period of time in my life as a failure, something to be ashamed of, to be hidden in secret closets, I would have blinded myself from the silver lining.
Failure is not fun, it’s not pretty and when you are wading through its mire it feels like it will never end. Believe me, it will. When you find yourself on the other side, wounds freshly licked, dare yourself to turn back and revisit that time.
Glean some wisdom from those hidden nuggets called life lessons that you were too heartbroken to notice at the time. Once you do so, you just might start to understand that those failures were laying the foundations to discovering what you are really made of.