I was recently asked, “Am I a failure?” (A much better question to be asked then, “Are you a failure?”) As a therapist, this question comes up more often than you might think, and the people most likely to ask it are good people whose brains are being mean to them (notice I wrote “most likely”). From my experience, a fear of failure seems to be a greater problem for men whereas women tend to have a fear of not making everyone happy, which often has connections to not being perfect (women are good at having impossible standards). Either way, what needs to be realized is that we can’t be a “failure” until we’re dead. You might be failing at life or you might have a major failing moment, but as long as you’re alive, you have time to change things so you “pass.” If you are screwing up how you’re living, you’d be more accurately described as a “failure in progress,” (that’s a fun title; probably not a future top selling bumper sticker). It’s just like being in a class at school. How you do the work will cause you to be failing or passing, but it’s not until the class is over that it’s determined whether you’re a failure or not. The good news about seeing life like this is even if you have a major fail moment, you can still pass by the end. And the good news about this post is if you’re asking this question unfairly of yourself, you will be able to stop torturing yourself with it. That being said, if you’re asking this question, there’s a good chance your body is trying to get you to change something. From my experience, most people who ask this really just need to learn how to be nicer to themselves (that often includes learning to say no to people pleasing) and stop not having impossible standards.
My wife’s dead grandma is a good example of someone who is a failure (aka failed at life). Why would I make this claim? Despite having four kids and six grandkids, when she died a few years ago, the family didn’t bother having a funeral because… well, she didn’t have any friends, acquaintances, or family who were that close to her to care. Maybe she was different earlier in her life and she was a “pass in progress,” but as far as any family stories I’ve heard, bitterness had long consumed her heart and she shut out the world. Because of how she was, when she died the world became a little bit better. That can sound mean, but I’m claiming this simply as fact because it is a fact. The reality is there are people who are failures at life, and she is one of them. The tragic thing is she had lots of opportunities to turn her failing grade back into a pass, but she refused, and like a foolish teenager who refuses to change their behaviors after failing at midterm, her choices caused her to be a failure at life. Even more tragic is she’s not alone in this. A lot of people who die are failures. Life was a gift they treated like garbage, which in turn made them garbage.
So what is a pass at life? A pass is when we are a contributing member of society. For most of us, that means having a job and being someone others like or can at least tolerate being around. It’s not that complicated. For kids, that means going to school to create skills and habits that will help them one day be a contributing member of society. And yes, that means there are kids who are “failures in progress.” This of course means if you’re a parent who enables your child’s failing and give excuses for them, you’re failing at raising kids. Parents who are pushing their struggling kids to be better, thank you; your dedication will hopefully pay off one day, and if it doesn’t and your child chooses to continue being a failure in progress, at a certain point, that’s on them. A parent can only do so much to help their child.
The one distinction I should point out is for people with certain disabilities. I have a childhood friend whose brother was very cognitively delayed, but if you met the two of us and had to choose who you’d want to have as a friend, you’d definitely pick him (again, a fact and not judgement). My friend’s brother has an incredibly friendly smile and a warmth about him that makes you want to be around him… while I write posts about people being failures at life (he’s clearly a nicer person to be around). Despite his impairments, he even works a couple of hours a week at a grocery store because his parents know it’s good for him to be out, and frankly, people love seeing him. That’s a pretty awesome way to be contributing to society – you’re someone people want around. When he passes away, he will have a funeral, and it will be full of people sad to lose him. It’s strange, isn’t it? My wife’s grandmother wasn’t cognitively delayed, but she failed at life, which proves how smart you are doesn’t matter as much for passing at life as how healthy your heart is. In this, kindness is greater than intelligence.
The person who asked me if he was a failure was far from being one. He had a job that contributed to society (i.e. he wasn’t in the mafia) and he had lots of friends. He felt like a failure, however, because he was afraid he wasn’t doing enough. What’s interesting to me is people who are afraid they’re not doing enough tend to be doing the most. Their desire to do enough is a great motivator for being involved in life. This attitude is particularly ideal for young people needing to set their lives up with a solid career and family, but when these are established, we need to start easing up or we will burn ourselves out, and for what? You can’t earn heaven. You don’t “win” if you have a lot of people at your funeral. We need to find the balance of being involved in our community and knowing how to say no to opportunities that aren’t good for us. To make it easier to say no, remember you’re opening an opportunity for someone else who might really benefit from it.
Sometimes people will think they’re a failure at life because they are (again, claimed as fact and not judgement). Sometimes our feelings will lie to us, but our bodies are smart and will tell us to smarten up when we really need to: (body) “We have too much bottled up inside; let’s have a panic attack.” (other body) “I need more nutrients and exercise; I’m going to feel like garbage until I start being treated properly.” (a third body) “I’m going to cut out his sex drive until he deals with this hurt.” Our culture is so quick-fix driven, we’ve stopped listening to our bodies as we try to shut it up: (person) “I feel something I don’t like. I need drugs!” Sometimes medication is necessary to help balance something in our brain, especially when it comes to things like extreme ADD and bipolar, but we need to be very seriously considering what our body is telling us. Drugs, on their own, are rarely the solution. They need to be paired with proper training of behaviors to be most effective. For instance, if you go through intense grief because you’ve lost a loved one, you don’t just take pharmaceuticals to erase feeling anything. You want to tone down the pain enough with medication in order to help you process and heal over the next year. (Notice I wrote “next year” and not “overnight”?) It’s no different than back pain. Pain meds are meant to help you move easier to help you stretch and strengthen in order to heal.
Someone who is a “failure in process” typically has an attitude of they’re too special to have to work like everyone else, they think life owes them something, they expect life to be easy and everything should have an easy fix like a magic pill, or they expect everything they want to be handed to them by family or the government. The best test for whether you are a “failure in process” is to ask, “Have I done or am I doing anything to make life better for others?” and “Will anyone miss me if I die?” One therapist taught me that people on their deathbeds essentially ask, “Did I live? Did I love? Did I matter?” In a world full of opportunities and people to help, there is no excuse for us to be a failure at life; that’s simply the result of laziness and selfishness; not “feeling” like doing something right isn’t an excuse for not doing what’s right.
The truth is we all have things we need to change. Some people have some major changes they need to make (I’m sure you can think of a few people in this category) while others only have some minor changes to make because we’ve been “attending class” and “doing the work.” Of course, the question begs (at least by geeks like me), how do you go beyond just passing and being successful at life (aka a top student)? The easy answer is you find happiness. What is the key to happiness? Being content and finding a sense of peace. And what is the key to being content and finding a sense of peace? Thankfulness. A thankful heart that can see the good in all situations is a powerful thing. How do we get over hurt and learn to forgive in order to prevent bitterness taking over our heart? Thankfulness. How do we get over not having the biggest house, the best car, the best vacations and material things? Thankfulness. Of course, just because we learn to be thankful doesn’t mean we stop dreaming or striving for better – complacency is not thankfulness. Being thankful means we appreciate what we have as a way to inspire us to continue to grow. It’s like someone on a diet saying, “I’m thankful I’ve reached this point, and I look forward to seeing where my hard work takes me,” instead of “You’re so fat, no one will love you! Work harder!” Being thankful is essentially having a mindset that is completely opposite of what our society teaches, which makes it very hard to achieve even when you know it’s the answer.
As a Christian, I would say what’s even more important than being a “top student” is setting yourself up for what comes next. You might be the best student in your class, but unless you apply to university or a job, you’re not going anywhere. Of course, the world would be better if everyone worked at being a top student while also applying to the next chapter of their lives.
This week may you take an honest look at your life and consider if you really are a failure in progress. If you are, hopefully you can find what you need to fix that, and if you’re not, hopefully you can stop torturing yourself with that thought.
Rev. Chad David, www.ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)