Earlier this week, I was talking to some friends. I was trying to use an analogy for a work thing and I said, “It’s like marriage, you just can’t keep score.” My friend looked at me and said, “How would you know?” I am outwardly thick skinned and inwardly sensitive. I quipped back, “You’re right. How the heck would I know? I have a string of failed relationships. A string of failed careers. How the heck would I know? I wouldn’t.” I think I played it off with some humor, but there was a little sting behind it.
I have been reflecting on this. And this blog post has been on the tip of my tongue for quite sometime, because it keeps coming up in different forms. Prompted by books and conversations. When I read another memoir celebrating how far someone has come from their bout with anorexia, their struggle with alcoholism, or the abusive relationship they left. Or just learning about the perspective shift someone had when their friend died or they lost their job and found a path to their true passion. We love a success story.
Our society admires those who have made it through the fire and lived to tell the story at the bar the next weekend. As we should. Those people are bad ass. And have a lot of perspective to share. But what about those who are still in the fire? What if we could capture the human spirit of the woman that is currently enduring her second divorce? Or the feelings of failure running through the head of a man who has failed the bar examination for the second time? Or a thirty-five year old who looks at her sagging skin loathingly? Or a man who hasn’t touched his wife in two months?
I wonder what truth lives with those who have yet to “make it.” I wonder if only finding value in the reflection of surmounting the struggle rather than the struggle itself has left us feeling hopeless. I am 37 years old. I drink too much wine and could probably be thinner if I tried. I started a business because I could not get hired by anyone and then closed it, because I could not keep the lights on. I have been in half a dozen serious, failed relationships. Sometimes I go to bed without brushing my teeth. I still correct myself when my mind falls into the trap of thinking there must be something wrong with me.
I can not tell you my success story. I can not look back and inspire you with the fire I have come through. I am still in the fire. When I share my reflections, maybe everyone is thinking, “How the heck would you know?” But here’s what I have learned. I am generous despite not having very much, so I will certainly be generous with a lot. I am hopeful without a life partner, so I will certainly be hopeful with one. I loved owning my own business, even though it didn’t succeed monetarily. And I like wine.
My thoughts and feelings may not be based on the fruits of always winning, but rather the thorns of often failing. I may lack the success to garner a book deal, but rather than waiting until I reach some imaginary benchmark to feel worthy of having a point of view, I know this is my story now. And there is purity in the truth of struggle. I cannot sugar coat my story when I am in it.
Whenever my failures result in something slightly better, people forget the failing all together. The good chocolate soufflé I cooked eclipses all of the other desserts that didn’t rise or stuck to the pan. By focusing just on people who have already won, we hypnotize ourselves into believing that is their whole story and that the truth lies in the success rather than the struggle. We all know Michael Jordan practiced a lot, but nobody had posters of him on their wall when he got cut from the team. And nobody was asking him for advice or insight.
My friend is right, I certainly do not know how to keep a 27 year marriage alive, create a hotel chain from scratch, or improve the lives of millions of people. Yet. There are many successes I have yet to accomplish in my life. I DO know how to sous vide a salmon filet, say I am sorry, hitch a cab in a third world country, and tend to the feet of an 1,800 lb Percheron-Thoroughbred draft cross that has been out on winter range for six months. When I die and they write my biography about all of the cool things I did that changed the world, I hope they quote this blog post when I had still failed more than I hadn’t and wasn’t doing anything particularly earth shattering. Knowing the extraordinary lives in the perseverance of the ordinary is where truth lives. See you there.