Whether a bad test score, the end of a relationship, or a sports loss, we all know what failure feels like. It’s the stomach-clenching sensation that you weren’t good enough, that you fell short of your goal, and that your dreams seem further out of reach than ever. We all feel that way sometimes, but failure does not need to define us, and the only power it has over us is the power we allow it.
Just a few months after our wedding, my husband got sick, and I decided I’d earn a few extra “Best Wife” points and make a pot of delicious chicken noodle soup – only I had no idea how to make the soup. The beginnings were promising: onions and garlic sauteed in extra virgin olive oil. That’s a recipe for any winning soup, right? Well, not when you then add in chicken broth that’s been open for at least eight days. I tried to cover the horrific reek wafting from the pot with beef broth and spices, but the stench increased. Finally, after I’d made a last ditch attempt to save the soup with vegetables and pasta, I was forced to admit defeat, and after one whiff, my husband decided that we should have a nice dinner out.
Sometimes failure turns into a joke to be laughed about later, when you know to check expiration dates on broth cartons. Usually, however, failure runs deeper, and recalling it is more painful.
I was 16 years old, on the bench at an away volleyball game, keeping statistics. I didn’t want to be a benchwarmer, but I stood by and watched as girls younger and shorter than me jumped higher and made more passes. I knew I wasn’t a great player, but at that away game I started to feel like a failure. My coach usually put me in for at least a few minutes every game, but as the clock ticked down and the points stacked up, I suddenly realized that I would not be put in. Our team rarely won games, and for once, we were actually close to winning, and I was too much of a wildcard. I had driven over an hour to make slashes on paper and plaster a smile over my crumbling heart.
I quit the team in my senior year, telling myself I had better things to do with my time. I thought I had put my sports woes behind me until I recently realized how bitter I still was. I realized that attitude made me a volleyball failure, but I didn’t have to stay that way. I pulled out my journal and wrote out my resentment at teammates who got frustrated with my lack of athletic ability, and my disappointment that I never was able to play well. Although they would never know it, I forgave people on my team for comments they had likely long forgotten. It took me seven years, but when I finally realized how angry I still was, I was able to release those feelings. My failure was only a failure for as long as I allowed it to be.
Failures themselves do not matter as much as we often convince ourselves. It’s how we respond that counts, yet I often find myself responding with fear. Fear is a larger enemy than failure, for it can trap me in doubt and convince me that everything I do from that point on will be a worse failure. If I listen to the fear, I will never be able to write a novel, much less a sentence.
My dream is to be a writer, and I recently came across a quote from Stephen King that stated: “Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.” When I think about it, four or six hours of out twenty-four really isn’t all that much. I could easily find the time, but most days, I don’t. I hold myself back from my own success. I am my biggest enemy, and the failure I face right now is the failure to begin. This failure is not a result of trying and coming up short, but being too afraid to try at all.
I am learning, however, that failure is what we make it. If we allow it to conquer our minds, it will oblige. If we learn from it, however, we can move forward onto better things. Failure can become an opportunity to learn. I didn’t give up on cooking after that terrible soup. Instead, I began to experiment within the framework of good recipes, and fell in love with cooking. And although you won’t find me engaging in organized sports, you can find me in a yoga studio. It took me a long time to learn from my failure, but when I did, I found that I was proud of the person I had become. Domenica Ruta, author of a poignant memoir, said, “My whole career was born out of a series of failures.” I hope that we will have the courage to not remain broken, but to build upon our failures to create something beautiful.
Photo courtesy of the author
Lacy Cooke has been writing since she was 8 years old. Although she would move to Middle Earth and live in the Shire if possible, her favorite Earth place is Lake Tahoe. She is a California native recently transplanted to Connecticut. In California, she earned her degree in English from Westmont College, and fell in love with John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway in the process, as well as her husband. Lacy loves her amazingly supportive family, cats, chocolate, Game of Thrones, dill pickles, and Jane Bennet, in that order. Her experiments in life can be found at Sputnik Prose.