Everyone fails. That is a simple reality of being human. So often, though, people express fearing anything short of complete success, or put another way, they fear falling down. These folks describe themselves as losers for not achieving more in their lifetime than they believe they are “supposed” to achieve or simply because they find themselves in a place in their lives that they had not expected or do not like. Some individuals refuse to try new things, not for lack of interest or ability, but simply because they fear looking bad. They believe that they must be perfect, and that they will appear incompetent or foolish if they achieve anything less than perfection. These folks have trouble with the premise with which we began, that everyone fails and does so often.
The odd thing about falling down in our life is that if we do not fall, then we do not grow. For instance, consider a toddler who has developed the power to stand on his own feet. He holds onto the arm of a chair or sofa and giggles, pleased with his new ability. Eventually, though, this is not enough for him, so he lets go of his support and tries to take a step, usually falling as soon as he does so. What happens next proves important for the rest of his life. If his parent or caregiver becomes upset, then the child assumes something bad has happened and becomes upset as well; he begins to connect failure with shame and fear. On the other hand, if the parent cheers, goes over, picks him up and gives him a hug, well, this is just fine to the little fellow, so he tries again, and tries again, and tries again until finally he begins walking. As anyone with children can tell you, after the toddler learns to walk, he soon learns to run. Yet if the toddler had never lets go of the furniture and allowed himself to fall, he would never have learned to walk.
I like relating the story of Thomas Edison’s experience creating an incandescent lamp. In 1879, he announced that he planned on inventing a light that used neither flame nor oxygen; he told reporters it would take him about six months to complete. After trying ten thousand filaments over several years, Edison could finally report the development of a commercially viable light bulb. When asked by a reporter about how he felt having failed ten thousand times, the famed inventor responded, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
Recently, I listened to still another point of view about this on a television program, where I heard a monk describe life in a monastery. He said, “I fall down; I get up. I fall down; I get up. I fall down; I get up.” In other words, even in the relatively calm and consistent atmosphere of monastery, he still keeps missing the mark, getting up, and learning from the fall.
People who exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and loss describe feeling overwhelmed and confused. I tell these individuals that, if they allow themselves to move through their experience, they will find a deeper, more empathetic, and wiser sense of themselves. When told this in the beginning of their therapy, a lot of patients shake their head, doubting how this could possibly happen. Nearing the completion of the process, however, most of them will smile at some point, saying that they understand the journey they have taken and how much it has expanded their sense of themselves and their empathy for others. Knowing these extraordinary people continues to awe me; I feel privileged to associate with them and share in their courage. The power of these experiences lies in the person’s ability to step into their perceived weakness and vulnerability, to risk the fall.
Archibald “Moonlight” Graham played one-half of an inning of baseball for the New York Giants in 1905. He stopped playing after that and became a medical doctor, practicing in a small Minnesota town. In the film, Field of Dreams, Burt Lancaster portrayed a somewhat fictionalized version of this man. In that movie, the character played by Kevin Costner asks if not playing professional baseball felt like a tragedy to Dr. Graham. Lancaster’s character replied that not playing more baseball was an experience but “if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”
In our families, our careers, education, social lives, hobbies, on and on, we make mistakes – occasionally big ones – and these moments seem like disasters while they are happening. Yet these occurrences are the fertile moments of our lives, when a genuine opportunity to grow exists. The woman who seeks a promotion at her job may discover after getting it that the position feels unfulfilling, unpleasant, and not at all what she expected. The woman may go to her superiors and tell them that she wants her old job back. Such an insight is not a failure, however; it may prove to be the height of success! I had such an experience early in my own career and learned how much I loved the work I had been doing all along.
So, what does all of this suggest? The thing is, when we make an effort and learn from it, we do not fall down, we fall up. When we experience heartbreak in our lives and allow ourselves to live it fully and grow in the process, we fall up. When, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, we “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same,” we fall up. We mature, and we do so in ways that we cannot imagine prior to the experience. We become more of ourselves. Accordingly, we can begin to hug ourselves for our efforts, as we might hug that little child when he takes his first steps towards a lifetime of walking.
Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.