Failure

“You were wrong to count on me.” Who can speak in such terms? God and the Failure. — E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born

[I]t is always important to choose rightly …. — Victor Eremita (Søren Kierkegaard), Either/Or

When a lifetime’s choices and compromises seem to coalesce in a dense, dark cloud that threatens catastrophe, popular wisdom may suggest a kind of soap opera psychology: “Put it all behind you and get on with your life.” But that’s not possible. Decisions never end: each day, already shaped by the past, demands more, and the new choices combine with the continuing consequences of the old in a tightly twisted rope of cause and effect. Tangling into an invincible knot that blunts the swords of power and wisdom, it mocks prophecies of mastery and promises of liberation and salvation.

Were I alone enmeshed in this knot, I might not desire to escape the weight of my choices, because only I would carry it. But I am not alone: my choices affect others whose lives are interwoven with mine, and therefore those choices are morally and emotionally fraught. Perhaps it was an inchoate understanding of that fact that attracted me, when I was much younger, to the eremetical life, a life from which others are excluded. Even now, that way of solitude sometimes sings to me siren-like, but I know that its song is the call of a daydream. I am inextricably interconnected with others. Complete isolation is not an option for me; realistically, it never was.

If isolation is not possible because I cannot exist alone, is cessation of existence my answer? To disappear completely, perhaps to swallow some pills and sleep into nothingness, would be to bear no further pain; to escape not only past but also, and especially, future; to make the only choice which, whatever its effects on others, can have no consequences for me beyond its actualization. But to take that way out would be to betray, not for the first time but more brutally than ever before, those who, to borrow the Buddhist image of “Indra’s net,” are like gems embedded in the web of relationship with me, each of us reflecting the others on many levels. Paradoxically, I am preserved from suicide by the very connections that would lead me to consider it.

Of course, there are many religious figures who would sell me a program of ego death, promising that I can shake off karma and live as a detached, enlightened being who does no harm, or offer me an Alexandrian sword such as sola fide‘s fantasy of instant immunity from moral responsibility. Simply pledge trust, troth, and tithe, they say, and “all manner of thing shall be well.” After almost half a century of study and practice, and after having taken the lure more than once, I know that sort of thing for what it is: a spiritual Ponzi scheme. Inka‘d egos selling egolessness? Pie-in-the-sky-mongers hawking cheap grace at a markup? No help there. The promises of religion, I find, are empty. I can’t regress to life as it was before darkness fell, nor can I move forward into something wholly new, beyond the reach of the past. The Garden of Eden never was, and the Kingdom of Heaven never will be. The children of the saints, pace George Fox, are not perfect. Nor, pace Buddha, can we save ourselves from karma: the dharma is a raft in a typhoon. There is no seaworthy barque of salvation: hopes of deliverance are always broken on the rocks; the only unsinkable vessel sails the Styx.

The inescapable fact is that there is no escape from the consequences of my choices. They, I, and others are inseparably interrelated. They travel with me, as it were, casting a shadow over present and future, obscuring the way ahead. Walking in that gloom, I try to be guided by the dim light of love — when I can see it. Sometimes I move in a thoroughly dark night. Having no Lord to uphold me, I often stumble and fall, taking others down with me. A time may come when I wander off an unseen edge, or when continuing through gloom and darkness becomes more than I can do. In any case, the time will certainly come when life itself fails. After all, failure is our human fate.

Until the finality of failure takes me, I can only try to love more mindfully, particularly in the ambiguous, precarious, and blighted circumstances that some of my choices have helped, and will ineluctably continue to help, create. Although others have graciously forgiven me many times, I know that I can’t hope always to be forgiven my part, which is sometimes most significant, in shaping those circumstances. Certainly, responsibility is not in question: regardless of the extent, if any, to which my choices are not free or are shared with others, ultimately they are mine — as are the failures of love and wisdom which many of them reflect.

There was a time when I believed in the possibility of success, but, at this point, any ambition for that, understood as the opposite of failure, would be patent delusion. In order to continue at all, truth by now being undeniable, I must unreservedly accept my failure. That’s distressing in itself. But knowing that my failings harm others tears my heart. That wound is reopened every day.

Every day, therefore, is a painful time of decision. If I choose to live, which I do today, it is in the knowledge that, despite my intentions and efforts, I will continue to wound others and, therefore, myself. I recognize that, my sincerity notwithstanding, I am not to be trusted, that I will inevitably create new suffering even as the harmful karma of the past continues to unfold. I try, and want to try better, to minimize the harm, but past, present, and future are strands in this one knotted rope, and my measure of love’s wisdom is compromised by myopia and fear: I know that my possibilities are limited. I know, too, though, that while I can do no more than I can do, I cannot assume that my limits — or others’ — are either obvious or fixed. In that I find hope: not for a new beginning, a bright future, an against-all-odds deus ex machina, but that those whom I harm can survive what I do to them in my ignorance and weakness, and that, by more diligently waiting upon and attending to the light of love, I can find the will and the wisdom to live less harmfully.

Standing still awhile, finding my balance between resignation and hope, I am acutely aware that survival, which for me means living with love and grace amid guilt and uncertainty, requires increasing courage, clarity, and care. Although the way ahead is dark, at least I know where I stand as I wait upon light.

2 thoughts on “Failure

  1. I think it may be possible for many “to put it all behind you, and get on with your life,” perhaps it is just not possible for you. Setting aside the ideology of karma, do all one’s decisions exert consistent weight to the end of life (like the links in Marley’s chain)? As time passes and we look back on decisions, our memory and intrepretation of them is bound to change; some siginficant decisions we may even forget. What is the truth a of decision then – are they recorded in the book of life? There is the notion that the motion of a butterfly’s wings will cause the weather to change across the globe, but it is more likely that the effect will be cancelled out by other atmospheric disturbances. Is that not the real effect of our decisions, that some have lasting implications while the effect of others gets cancelled out?

    I hear in this essay a cry of concern for your mortal soul, sifted though a buddist screed. On the one hand, I’ll admit I think I should have more concern for my own soul, but on the other, it strikes me as narcissistic. Where is the time and energy for agape is this sea of self concern. I’ll admit that I do believe there is a question about whether loving others is really just self love, because it makes us feel good. The same issue attends to good works.

    Still, surely not every decision of your life has inflicted pain; have some not caused joy? Who is to judge the net of the weight of these decisions?

    • [Readers: my correspondent Mark and I know each other personally and often worship together at a local Friends meeting.]

      Thanks for commenting here, Mark.

      Please note that, as the “category” designation indicates, the post is a personal reflection. It does makes some general statements, however, and I expected disagreement about them. Disagreement is not a problem for me: many people, including other Friends, do not agree with me about religion and spiritual life, and we Quakers know well how to live lovingly in diversity. In that spirit, I’ll try to address all or most of your points as best I can.

      I have no reservations about standing by my expressed thinking on the issue you have initially highlighted. It is one of the major points of the essay that, whatever we may imagine that we can do or have done, we cannot simply dismiss all of our actions and move forward, because those actions — which obviously have widely differing degrees of significance, most of them probably at or near zero — are parts of continuing sequences (intermeshed with other sequences, as you note) of cause and effect. Significant decisions affect the present and the future — ours and others’ — by contributing toward shaping and limiting them. (In that sense only, yes, they are recorded in the book of life: that is, they are crucial parts of the narrative; without them, the characters and their stories would be different.) We can choose to consciously ignore their consequences, but we cannot actually escape them. Nor can others. Further, in my opinion any denial of their effects on others would be a denial of the reality of our interconnection and a devaluation of the individuals so affected. It would also be a loss of opportunity to understand the present more deeply, to respond to others more lovingly, and to carry lessons learned into the future. I’ll say more about that further on.

      As to the concept of karma, it appears in the post not as an expression of ideology but as a convenient and widely-understood way of referring to the fact that acts have consequences, some of which may be called “moral consequences” because they affect others. I would expect such usage to draw criticism from educated Buddhists as something of a popularization, because the primary concern about affecting others may be traceable to my Christian mindset, and because at least some Buddhist teachers distinguish between (what are assumed to be) volitional actions (“karma,” strictly speaking) and their consequences or “fruits.” But I use the term only as a convenient shorthand for cause and effect. In conjunction with the image of Indra’s net, it helps me describe the existential reality of our interconnected lives and the moral weight of our choices. It is not a lens through which my experience of life is filtered.

      In the specific experience that gave rise to the post, an experience that can be described as a major crisis,* I was not indulging in (perhaps semi-pleasant) regret about the past but was being confronted by the actual present and possible future effects on other beings of some of my decisions. The essay is a record of my (no doubt common and even trite) progress through that crisis, from the desire to escape the burden of knowing that I have harmed, and will continue to harm, other people, to acceptance of the reality that there is no escape (precisely because others are involved), and ultimately through acceptance to a measure of hope sufficient to permit me to overcome despair and resolve to better heed love’s promptings for the sake of those others. I hope that you have been spared such crises.

      In writing out such an intimate experience, I trusted that some who have been there would understand, and I hoped that my outlining of my relatively successful negotiation of that crisis might be of help to someone else in a similar situation. It may be that, because context drives interpretation, the post will communicate poorly to someone with no knowledge of that kind of crisis. I probably should have made the context explicit for such readers, maybe in the title or in an introductory paragraph. Although I waited weeks after the event before completing and posting the piece, it also may be that I should have allowed even more time and distance before publishing. That’s all useful to know. (One of the problems with blogging is, of course, that one has no editor.)

      I don’t understand your image of sifting through a Buddhist screed, so I can’t respond specifically to that. But I can say that, in my 21st-century way, I’m with George Fox on the notion of a mortal soul: being non-existent, it’s not something I’m concerned about. Speaking for myself only, the same goes for immortal souls – and, as implied above, for the classic behavior-controlling ploy of a “book of life” as well.

      Similarly, I no longer concern myself with questions such as whether loving others is selfish because it makes me feel good. For one thing, as the post evidences, it doesn’t always make me feel good; sometimes it makes me feel dangerously ill. In the Christian tradition, love is sacrificial, a kenotic setting-aside of self-will for the benefit of the beloved. Although many do so, I think it’s a dodge to argue that even that is some sort of twisted self-gratification, as if, to invoke the ultimate icon of kenosis, Jesus subconsciously had a delightful time during his torture. Sacrificial love can be an authentic response to our human situation.

      The argument, which I’ve heard from some, that any gratification from loving invalidates the loving as gift is, in my view, sophomoric: our limits are what they are, and, discerning and acknowledging their existence, we do our best within them — being careful, as I note in the post, to avoid assuming that we know exactly where they lie. (See Derrida on the economy of the gift for much deeper thinking on that than I can offer.) Such objections I classify as “airy notions”: when love calls, that sort of thing falls away — which is not to say that discernment and mindfulness also fall away. My feelings of pleasure or/and pain must be set aside when I come upon one who lies bleeding in a ditch, whether or not he lies there as a result of my choices. What is important is that I have developed a mind of attunement, discernment, compassion, and responsibility; otherwise, I’m likely to go on my way — get on with my life — like the holy folks in the parable. It is also important that, as and after I address the man’s need, I am willing to reflect on the effectiveness of my actions and on whether justice now calls me to make some change in my way of life. And certainly, if I had caused or contributed to his suffering, then my responsibility for honest reflection and conversion would be very heavy.

      On that note, I’ll try briefly to respond to your challenge about “where is the time and energy for agápē in this sea of self-concern.” In my experience, if I am committed to living lovingly then I must be concerned with my sensitivity and fidelity to the leadings of love. Loving action is not, for me, something that just happens: it is the fruit of my discerning and careful response to the promptings of love. In my understanding, the spiritual life is one that is very serious about what we might call “use of self.” Focus on self is healthy and necessary in such a life, as are focus on and honesty about the consequences of my choices on other beings. That art does not equate to narcissism, which is obsessive admiration of the self (whether in positive or negative form), nor does it equate to simple fixation on self or to navel-gazing. It is — again, in my personal experience — the necessary work, the discipline, of learning to make love an effective reality. In this context, the only question I have about time and energy is whether I am investing enough of them in submitting myself to be searched and led by the light of agápē. And that requires intensive efforts at honest self-knowledge and self-evaluation: the examined life, etc.

      In response to your final question: if you look at my “Days of Visitation” post of 2/25/11, you will see that, as my life moves toward its end, I have taken on the task of, as I put it there, gathering and weighing life’s harvest — a task of which the current post can be seen as a part. To answer your question succinctly, I, guided by love, am the judge, but I am not looking for a net result as if to establish my score in a game. Such judgment is simply another tool, which I feel is appropriate to and useful at this time in my life, in the effort to be faithful to love’s present promptings. (That interpretation, by the way, I find to be in line with the classic Quaker method of reading scripture.) As I look over that earlier post, I wonder if, read in that light, it might help address some of the concerns you have expressed, at least by way of providing more context for the current post. Even if it only confirms that we disagree on some fundamentals, we still have an opportunity for learning, for deeper mutual understanding, and for the practice of love. If you have a few minutes and sufficient interest, I hope you’ll have a look at it.

      In any case, all of my work should be taken in context; all essays here, diverse though they be, are partial expressions, reflections from facets, of a consistent, if evolving, perspective and practice through ups and downs. That perspective and practice benefit from critique and dialogue, so thanks again for your comments. I’d be pleased to continue the conversation if you like.


      * Note: Originally, I described the event as a “major depressive crisis”: I had avoided using “spiritual” or “psychological” because of possible connotations. But I soon realized that “major depressive” was worse, and that I was giving a false impression (perhaps especially to clinically-knowledgeable readers). Please note, therefore, that I did not meet the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for major depression during the experience on which this post is based: an insufficient number of “symptoms” were present, and the experience lasted only about 24 hours, a much shorter period than the minimum (two weeks) needed for a major depressive episode.

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