We are not raised to accept failure. We are trained from birth to seek success, to define ourselves by success, to adapt and overcome, that there is always a path through to victory. This is how we are taught to deal with a world that we must overcome to succeed. It is good to teach the young that they must strive, for against anything but their wyrd they may triumph.
Note the caveat.
Wyrd weaves as it will, and against it even the gods may not stand. At the end of the first war, the goddess Frigg had seen her best loved son, Baldur, the shining one, at the forefront of every battle. First into battle, as he was ever first with a laugh, with a song, with a smile; his courage was as great as his heart and she lived in fear that his courage would lead to his doom. Determined, now that the Aesir and Vanir were at peace and the Aesir held sway over the worlds, Frigg set to earn from every creature that lived, every thing that crawled, flew, swam, grew, or rooted in the earth; indeed from every rock and metal, every gem and stone, a promise to do no harm to her son. She succeeded almost beyond belief in securing the oath of every thing that existed in the nine worlds, except for one. Mistletoe. It was only Mistletoe that refused to swear, and with an arrow of Mistletoe was Baldur slain, and winter came into our world. The goddess blessed with the ability to see wyrd, the weavings of fate more deeply and truly than any other, a goddess with power and knowledge almost beyond all definable limits set out to protect her son, and she failed.
Why was no one paying attention?
We can all tell you about the revenge, about the consequences, and the saga are rich in detail about all of that, but what no one discusses is that the great goddesses Frigg, perhaps our most powerful goddess, failed at the thing most important to her.
We get told by the better instructors in first aid that some people are going to die anyway. Then the rest of the weeks are spent working the premise that everyone is savable, and the only deaths you encounter in training are due to failures on your part. When our soldiers fall in battle or training, the immediate call goes up to see someone punished, as if one of ours fell, someone must pay, because a mistake has been made!
Death is woven into much of what we do, and there are a lot of things that you can do everything right and still get killed. That is why we honour those who serve military, police and fire services, because they can make no mistakes and still fall in our service. We honour ambulance attendants not nearly enough, as they have the unique chance to experience what our soldiers see too often as well; you can’t save them all. Watching people die when there is nothing you can do about it sucks badly. The longer you draw this out, the more it sucks.
Parents and sibling caregivers get a part of this too. Like Frigg they have one (or more) they are responsible for, one that they must protect, defend, and provide for at all costs. Death before dishonour is a great war cry, but in practice leaves either corpses or broken people in its wake. We somehow forgot that even the gods cannot simply decree victory, that beyond a certain point, how much you have to lose does not actually affect your ability to win.
Sometimes the stakes on the table really won’t turn a pair of two’s into a winning hand no matter how you try to play them. Sometimes you have given everything you have, and it is not enough. What do you tell the person who has given everything they have, and it is not enough?
Society tells them to suck it up buttercup. Family most frequently will tell them “You have always been the responsible one, I’m sure you will find a way”, or “Its not that bad, I’m sure you are exaggerating”. The latter one comes most frequently from those family that dump their problems on you and walk away trusting that you will deal with them because you always have. Family will allow you to get sucked dry by parasitic members of the family because “they need help”, all the while refusing to supply any of that help, or assist you when you get so overburdened you cannot cover all the commitments any more.
We have the lesson of Frigga, that even the gods cannot simply decree a victory, that some things really are beyond our ability. We don’t like that lesson, we don’t look at that lesson, we don’t acknowledge that lesson. We peddle the dangerous myth that if you love someone enough, you can make it work.
I tried that once, drove myself past all human limits. It didn’t end Disney. It ended badly, and the cost was far, far higher than it would have been if I would have acknowledged I was failing, accepted my failings, and saved what I could.
We are not taught to do that. There is a shame in failure. A stain, a blot upon your honour and name.
We are taught to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold the gods to. Think about that for one second. We expect each other to be more powerful and more perfect than the holy gods. I am trying to wrap my head around how that got accepted as anything but complete and utter horseshit, and I am failing utterly.
To people living with chronic pain, depression, or physical handicaps the challenges of our normal lives are harder by about the same degree that walking would be harder if you were carrying a pack with 80lbs of rocks in it. They can walk, yes. They can sort of shuffle while you jog, and they will be able to power up a limited amount of stairs, the will is a powerful thing after all. When you drop them off the side of the boat and swim for shore, understand that they will now drown. They can’t suck it up, they can only suck up lake water as their burdens take them to the bottom. Some things are simply beyond your strength, and there is nothing the will can do about it. That is just that.
Against wyrd even the gods are helpless, yet we somehow fail to cut ourselves the same slack.
There are people out there suffering in silence, sometimes motivated by pride, but most motivated by shame. They are busy drowning under their burdens because they have been taught that they are not allowed to fail, and to let go their burdens and save themselves would be shameful. They will drown, they will break themselves, and guess what, that won’t save their burdens either. Their dependants do not magically get cared for if they die in the attempt, they just end up short a caregiver.
Against wyrd even the gods are helpless, and even the gods fail. You are not a god, cut yourself some slack.
Everyone else out there; understand we are ALL PART OF THE PROBLEM. We are the ones looking at the family members doing the care giving and accepting the “I’m OK” from someone who looks like they are about to collapse, patting them on the hand and going back to your life, content someone else is dealing with those unpleasant things.
We are the ones telling parents that you have to “tough it out for your kids”, when they are telling you they are losing it, coming apart, not able to stretch their resources enough any more, and watching their house of cards come tumbling down about their ears.
We are the ones telling those who are struggling with chronic illness or pain to just “concentrate on the positive” or “be happy”, as if there is a dial somewhere in their head that allows someone to choose to be overwhelmed and coming apart or “happy” and until now they just never thought to turn it.
I live with chronic pain, so I know this particular dance. I am doing OK, so this isn’t a cry for help from me, because when I needed it I wouldn’t have asked, and what I was getting was so not helpful, so it was for the best. I include that remark for one reason alone. For all of those who are going to read this and say this is whining from special snowflakes who don’t know what real struggle is like, I have lived through more shit than you can believe or I had any right to survive, and that honestly makes me the one who needs to stand up and say this now.
I should have accepted failure when the cost was something I could live with. I didn’t and the cost was more terrible than I want to remember, but I don’t really have a choice. Be smarter than me.
If the gods can fail, why do we not permit it in ourselves? There is a saying in French:
“sauve qui peut” save who you can. When you are going to fail, you can accept that and save what you can, or you can deny it and end up saving no-one and nothing. There is no honour in this, only quiet despair, humiliation and loss. There is no victory to be gained by going down in flames, no one will sing your praises, and everyone with you gets burned too.
Failure is sometimes your wyrd. Accept when you face a challenge you cannot win, that you will not win, and devote your energy and your effort into saving what you can, getting out from under the inevitable results of that failure as many as you can
We treat failure like we treat death, but I will tell you a little secret that should be obvious, but actually isn’t; you can recover from failure. Death is simply the end, failure is a bit like falling, it tells you the point at which you have arrived (flat on your tushy) but does not say anything about where you go from there. You can get up from fallen, can rise from failure, but broken and dead is broken and dead. There is no way back. Do you see what I am getting at? Failure can be accepted when its results are best described as fall down, even fall down weeping, rather than fall down dead. The first two you can rise again and go on to triumph, the last one….the last one is forever, and there is no going back.
Failure is not something we ever want, not something we are prepared to accept when the failure is for those we love, for what we are depended on to provide. It will happen, unless your life is uncommonly blessed, that you will fail, and if you are really unlucky you may face the position of looking at a failure that you would rather die than allow. Ask yourself; will death bring your victory? Will death solve the problem you can’t for those you are leaving behind? If the answer is not absolutely clearly yes, then you are faced with a cold choice. Accept failure while you can still survive it and recover something from it, or lose everything by dying. If you lose everything and live, you can actually go on to win some back. Death really is the end of all possible aid you can give anyone. Death is the end of possibilities. Failure alone, is not.
We are told death before dishonour, we are told to put duty before our life. We are told a lot of things, and then set free in the world on our own to sink or swim. When there is no way to win, losing is what is left. When there is no way to succeed, failure is what is left. Not all losses are equal, not all failures are total. Accept when facing what you can’t beat, that victory is not going to be yours, determine what you can save, and put your strength into saving what you can. Swallow failure in all its ugly squalor, but wash it down with hope. If you chose to accept failure when you still have options, you can do that. If you attempt to deny failure when there are no paths to victory, you will lose everything, most likely including your life, or at least your ability to function in it, and never allow yourself the chance to find your way back.
Failure is a dirty word, but many necessary things in this life are dirty, humiliating and unpleasant. Many things in this life are simply necessary to survive to get to the parts that make it worth living for. Don’t let fear of failure destroy you. Learn the lessons of Frigg. Move all the nine worlds to do your duty but if that is not enough and you fail anyway; accept it. Wyrd weaves as it will, and if it weaves a loss for you right now, save what you can, save yourself as much as you can, and hope to rebuild on the ashes. Failure, even when it costs you everything you have now, only costs you everything if you let it end you. It cannot take away what you will do tomorrow, nor next week, next year. Give yourself the right to fail, and see if the right to rebuild gives you something you can live with afterward.
Frigg could not save Baldur. Sometimes love is not enough, duty is not enough, pride is not enough. We are no more powerful than the gods, and even they fail. They showed us you can continue. They taught us you can be worthy of respect, of trust, of love, after failure; even a failure to protect those whom you love more than your life. We are so quick to learn the lessons of revenge on others, and so slow to learn the lessons of forgiveness for yourself. Blame not the gods, they are marvelous instructors, blame ourselves, for we cherry pick our lessons, preferring blood and honour to failure and shame. Failure and shame are where you start from to rebuild what you can, save what remains. Failure and shame are ours too. They are not pretty, they are not cheap, and they are not ever forgotten, but from such mean things can you rebuild a life.