Failing Forward

by KELSEY DIDION

CHICAGO,IL - NEAR THE LAKE - Failure has been very present in my life lately. I've been face-planting on a regular basis these days, and instead of my normal pattern of self-loathing and regret, I'm getting really curious about failure in my life. I feel like it's a new friend I'm getting to know. I've been failing my whole life, but really hit my stride in the last year. It's been an upward trend in the last six months, and if you want the exemplar, look at me the past 4-6 weeks. Not to brag, but I'm kinda the Empress of Supreme Failure.  

Pema Chodran, the Buddhist writer and nun, writes about bad news as being the perfect teacher. Disappointment, fear, envy, anger, failure - the things we desperately DON'T want to feel or experience - the discomfort these create can be an opportunity to look inside. To see where we're hiding or not showing up in our lives fully. To see where we've habituated or gotten stuck. 

According to Pema, when the shit hits the fan, and you've hit rock bottom, and the bottom of the barrel is between a rock and a hard place, THERE'S the juicy place.

Well, gee, Pema. That sounds great. So why do I resist discomfort SO MUCH? Why do I run screaming from it? There are a million reasons. We all want to be good people. We all want to succeed. We all want to do things right. We all want to be the "something"-est...the smartest/prettiest/wisest/funniest/fastest/whatever. We cling to our beliefs, our emotions, our vocation to help support the identity we have forged for ourselves. And when we fail, or when we're challenged, or when we disappoint others or ourselves, that can shake the bedrock of our identity. 

Recently, I was working on an audition for Shakespeare's Macbeth and was struck by an exchange between Mr. Macbeth and his wife. She's been railing at him for not holding true to his word and their shared plot to kill the king. When he asks her, "If we should fail?" her response is a baller, monosyllabic "We fail." Scholars have argued over the punctuation in this line. Some adhere to the original publication's use of a question mark (We fail?). Others argue that in Shakespeare's day, question marks and exclamation points were often interchangeable (We fail!). Fun thing for an actress to play around with in rehearsals...my text, however, had a clear period ending the statement. We FAIL. Boom. End of story. It felt very apropos to be handling this text in a time in my life where failure feels so present. There seemed to be something so free in that phrasing. Look, if we fail, we fail. She goes on to say:

"But screw your courage to the sticking-place, 
And we'll not fail."

Sooo, maybe she's not so interested in failure! I was still drawn to this line, however. The "sticking-place" references how, back in the day, one had to screw their crossbow up tightly before releasing an arrow. Translating Lady M into my life coach, she's saying something like you find your spine, and you've got this. I also love that she uses the word courage in here. The line brings another Buddhist teaching to mind...strong back, soft front. If the journey towards mindfulness and an awakened society means cultivating compassion, kindness, and steadiness, then we can use discomfort and failure as teacher to open us further, to soften our front, our heart. Where are my emotions and beliefs - these things I hold onto for dear life - hardening my heart and making me unable to see clearly? The strong back can keep us from running away and hiding when we encounter bad news, or discomfort, or are challenged. That strong spine can support us. We can take it, we can have the courage to stay.

In theory, I think it’s pretty clear how this can connect to our artmaking - we fail. In practice, that ain’t easy! How do we dance with our perfectionism, our failure? We need to stay with it, get to know it, befriend it. It’s always going to be there, whether we like it or not...so if we can work with it, shift our perspective on what it means to experience artistic failure, therein lies the opportunity for opening, softening, deepening whatever we’re working with/on. It’s like removing the roadblocks standing between you and a richer connection to your scene partner, the poem you’re crafting, the landscape you’re trying to capture, the choreography you’re building. It’s MORE of you showing up. When we release the need to arrive and be perfectly formed and prepared, we’re less rigid. We’re impressionable, we’re malleable, we’re soft. That sounds like fertile ground for making. 
 
Perfectionism, or avoiding discomfort, or hiding from pain...shifting doesn't occur in these spheres. Stasis is stasis. Evolution requires flux. There's no perfect way to lead a life, or be an artist, or do your work, or be in relationship to others. We will make mistakes, we will have big fat smelly sticky goopy failures. Those failures, if we can make space for them, and investigate them, can be perfect teachers to learn from. Perfect guides on the path of continuing to soften our front and strengthen our back. I'm sure I'm going to submit this blog and then recognize errors or missed connections or plain old imperfection. Well, okay then. Just add another jewel to my Empress of Failure crown.

 

Kelsey Didion is a Founding Midwife

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