I’ve been reading a lot about failure lately. Some guy I like on the internet made a million dollars in a tech start up and then lost ten million. He’s depressed. Another person I know lost his dream job and now he has to do grunt work to make ends meet instead of chasing his dreams. He has a family to feed, and it’s a struggle.
Then there are the stories in the Bible I read at night to my children. God could have given us a list a rules, but instead, he gave us stories. Stories about people without sugar coating or airs. Stories about us.
Failure is a lot more interesting than success. People who are great at what they do — athletes, chess players, entrepreneurs — study their losses because you can learn a lot from a failure. Tell me your story of woe! Nobody wants to hear how great you are. We want to see a train wreck. It’s why reality TV is so popular. Maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Or maybe we know deep down inside that life can cut you and somehow there is solace in knowing that you’re not the only one who bleeds. Or maybe sharing failure gives us hope– that something wonderful can be made out of a mess, that failure isn’t the end of the story. There’s more. The gospel is that kind of story, too. It’s beauty for ashes, a paradox of something from nothing.
But today I want to tell you about something I did right. I’m going to break my rule about not bragging. I want to tell you about a success I had instead of a failure. I know, who cares if I’m wonderful? But I will somehow manage to turn it into a train wreck, I promise.
Last week someone hurt my kid, and I got my feelings all bunched up in a wad. It’s embarrassing. I was, you know, that person who had “hurt feelings”, that person for whom you needed to walk around on eggshells. My feelings! But here’s what happened: I made the decision to shut up about it. Nobody knew anything about nothing. (Except the internet now.)
I had the opportunity to say something cruel, something sideways and sarcastic. Instead, I asked this question: How will you wished you behaved in the morning? And then I did that. I chose not to be my authentic self, because at the moment, my authentic self sucked.
This idea, the one of separating negative emotions from a situation, has worked well for me when I’ve used it. The problem, of course, is that I don’t use this idea nearly enough.
Why is it that some people give great advice but lead miserable lives themselves? Because when you’re giving advice, you are able to be objective and there is no baggage, no undercurrent, no “hurt feelings”. It’s easy. It’s objective. It’s simple. It’s plain. I have conversations with myself in the third person: Now, if someone came to you and said such-and-such and …..
When I saw my sister for the last time, I did not do this. I did not think, “Never mind your feelings. Never mind what anyone thinks. What will you wish you would’ve done when it is over?” At a time when it mattered, at a time when you can’t go back and apologize and fix things and have a do-over, that’s when I blew it.
And this is the train wreck. My sister was dying. I knew it. She knew it. We all knew it but we didn’t say it out loud. Those were the rules. She wanted to be hopeful and talking about her death took away that hope. Sometimes you let other people make the rules when it is their party, you know?
And so when I walked into her hospice room after the flight to Brussels, I saw her. The sight of her took my breath away, and I don’t mean that because I’m too lazy to come up with a better cliche’. I mean that it really caught me in my throat.
I was expecting to see my sister: hair gone from chemotherapy, battle worn and a little weary. Someone recognizable. When I think of my sister, I think of her straight teeth and her lizard tattoo and her blond hair. She is tall and thin.
But the truth is this: I wouldn’t have been able to recognize her if I did not have her room number and if I did not notice the familiar family picture on the bedside stand. Cancer chewed her up and spit her out right there on the hospital bed. It was not her, and I didn’t know what to do. It would be the last time that she was coherent.
I stood there. I waved my hand, and said, “Hey.” We’re supposed to act all hopeful and stuff (right?), so yeah, hey. Then, in between gasps of breath, she told me that hospitals are boring.
Not a day has gone by that I don’t hate myself for that.
I knew acting normal, like this was routine surgery for her gall bladder, was the wrong thing to do. The right thing is compassion and tears and hugging and I’m sorry if we all look so ridiculous. You let it go. She was dying — really dying — and I’m worried about looking stupid and thinking of ways to not cry. I blew the moment.
This is what I know: Compassion is always the right thing to do, even if you fumble when you do it. I don’t mean fake compassion, an “it was for the best” and a pat on the hand kind of compassion. I mean, the kind that twists your stomach. It is the thing that I want so badly from other people but I am so friggin stingy with it myself.
And I hate that. Sometimes what’s inside our hearts is an awful thing, like the feelings I had last week about someone who messed with my kid, and generally, I have no trouble letting that out. Some people call it sarcasm, but it’s anger that I choose not to control. I like to lash out when I’m angry, and I hurt other people because of it. I chose the right thing recently by closing my mouth, but that is not my usual choice. In fact, it’s so unusual that I wrote about it here and congratulated myself.
And then other times, there is something very beautiful inside our hearts – love and compassion and empathy and tears and friendship and adoration – but that’s the thing we keep bottled inside. We talk about stupid stuff instead.
At the end of my life, I want to have lived a vulnerable life. Vulnerability requires courage. It means seeing vanity as a sin worthy of hell fire, and not as an annoying little trait that I happen to have. It means a deep understanding of who you are before the heavens. It is understanding that the story of Job was about God and not about Job. It means an intentional death blow to the spidery, ugly roots of pride that extend into the deep corners of our hearts.
I know this. The kingdom of heaven is a paradox: Blessed are the poor in spirit– those who understand their true, poor state before a holy God– for theirs is the kingdom. It’s no use being strong and putting on airs. Nobody thinks you’re strong anyway; they just think you’re a jerk. And I’m so tired of being a jerk.