The Place of Failure and Death — Part 1

failureIt’s a few months back and I’m answering a question I’ve just been asked online about my activist brand of atheism:

“Why do you do this? I mean, why do you want to take away people’s faith? Even if they believe things that aren’t true, what is that to you?”

“If you’re walking along a roadway and you see a nail out on the pavement, do you leave it there where it could puncture somebody’s tire, or do you pick it up?”

“What? I pick it up.”

“Yeah, well so do I.”

So:

The Place Without Failure

One of my many roomies was a guy we’ll call Steve. He had a custom photo lab and studio in this little resort town I lived in. Another camera shop opened up about a mile away. Steve’s place was out on the edge of town, whereas the new shop opened in the glitzy new mall in the heart of town. The new place was cleaner, brighter, more efficient, and the owner was – sorry, Steve – more knowledgeable.

Steve’s business went downhill. In only a few months, he was in real trouble. Facing both the loss of business and a lease agreement he had to run out, Steve spent the last of his savings on a total re-creation of his shop. His photo lab vanished, and in its place came Steve’s Smoothie Bar.

It was probably a good idea. This was California, after all. How can you go wrong selling Californians healthy, tasty drinks made out of wholesome fresh fruits and vegetables?

But, again, this was in that small, seasonal resort, and out on the edge of town. His sign, a somewhat amateurish effort, didn’t help.

In a few months, nothing remained but the sign. Steve lost his business. Lost his condo. His wife had kicked him out a year or so before, so he was already under a considerable amount of stress. But this was probably that last straw.

He left town and I didn’t see him for a year or so.

When I did see him, he was sporting a ferocious California tan and a brilliant salesman’s smile. “Hey! How’ve you been!? I’m so glad to see you! How are things going?” He pressed a card into my hand:

Steve Carson
Astrology • Aura Reading • Spiritual Communication • Reiki Healing

I was pretty far along the path of reason at the time. The card was skin-crawly obscene to me. It might as well have said:

Steve Carson
Molester of Innocents and Betrayer of Trust
(Fucking Over Gullible Middle-Aged Women A Specialty)

We traded small talk for a few minutes, then parted, Steve off to his happy career of taking advantage of wounded, defenseless people, me deeply disturbed and back to my mundane but honest cowboying.

As I was harnessing my draft horses for the afternoon’s hayride, I thought deeply about Steve’s transformation. Why give up on real business, and go with this woo-woo crap? Why would you allow yourself to take advantage of people like that? Gah! How would you even start such a career? I mean, it’s not like there are classes in screwing people over. (Are there??)

I had an epiphany about it later that night: It wasn’t the screwing-people-over thing he was mainly after, it was something entirely different: Steve had gone off to a place where he could never fail.

Think about it. If you’re a real-world person, failure is terrible.

First there’s the failure in numerical terms. You run out of money. When you’re spending more than you’re making, when the checks stop coming in, when your business goes under because you can’t pay your lease, when your wife leaves you because she’s tired of the family not having any money, when the numbers at the end of your bank statement are all red, red, red, you’re experiencing failure.

But along with that comes failure on the social stage. People judge you, they say awful and embarrassing things about you. They kick you out of your own home, they desert your business. They PITY you.

Maybe there’s a moment where you can no longer face that level of failure. It just hurts too much.

But! For some of us, there’s a place where – socially, at least – you can no longer fail. A place where there are no numbers, no facts, no criteria for success or failure, and therefore no possibility of negative evaluations. A place where you can talk to imaginary others you make up in your mind, a place where you can perform acts which other people can’t see, using energies nobody else can detect. A place where only you and certain other elevated, wise people can see and manipulate the magic all around us. A place where other people have to take your word for it, and you can TELL them you’re good at what you do. A place where everybody else, by your own private criteria, falls short of magnificent, mysterious, you.

That’s where Steve went.

He went into a fantasy world where he could never be wrong. Never make a mistake. Never fail.

I never saw him again, so I have no way to judge his financial success.

I sort of hope he DIDN’T make great amounts of money at his new profession. He must have been making some, I guess, otherwise he wouldn’t have been re-visiting the rather expensive resort town where we’d both lived. If he was financially successful, it was a success based on the gullibility of his customers. To me that seems a terrible sort of success, a predator’s success, the same success enjoyed by drug dealers and used car swindlers, religious hucksters and con men.

But in any real human terms, he was a success only in his own mind, his own private fantasy domain where he could never fail. In this other more-important sense, the sense of one’s own emotional health, Steve was … sick. Wounded and not getting better. And apparently, considering his con-man profession, acting to drag others down with him.

Even aside from the dangers of walking away from the real world, there is a trap there for the person who falls into it. Because it’s a trap baited by this fantasy of a release from pain, and because you CAN escape the pain in your own little la-la land, the only way to free yourself back into the real world is through a gateway guarded by pain. To get free, to become healthy again, you have to experience (or re-experience) the hurt – failure, loss, depression, embarrassment. The knowledge that you’ve failed, and worse, that it made you crazy enough not to want to know it, not to want to take real steps to recover from it.

It’s like the anesthetic wearing off after a hideous burn. You might know that somewhere on the other side of the long process of healing there will be a lessening of the agony … but to get there you have to feel the pain in all its vicious glory.

A burn victim might have no choice, but a fantasy victim can deny and deny and deny almost indefinitely. The thing might cost you everything – family, friends, home, love (THEY are wrong, all of them, not YOU!) – but you can stay in your fantasy, fiercely denying the reality of the situation, bending your mind into a shape that can never see the truth. All to avoid that pain and embarrassment.

Given the fact that we live in the real world, the truth is that you can’t be an internally-integrated, emotionally-healthy human being without a strong regard for reality, and for its built-in warning signal that something’s going badly wrong – pain.

I’m guessing everybody reading this has seen at least one person denying the reality of their situation. The worse the denial, the grander the fantasy that stops you from noticing your mistakes or your pain, the greater the danger of getting off the track of healthy normal life. Eventually you can get into mind-territory that bears little resemblance to ordinary human sanity.

And though you might not notice, everybody around you will.

There is a place for failure in life, an extremely useful place.

It’s the place of healthy caution and avoidance, the place of the lighthouse that warns you off the rocks. It’s the place you go FROM, after you’ve felt it a few times, in order to find emotional and real-world success and prosperity.

Failure is half of life’s guidance system, and it MUST be a part of your experience, fully felt and understood, in order to be steered away from.

To live in the real world, you have to fail. You have to know you’re failing, or have failed. And then you have to change course, do something different, move on, away from the pain and toward health and success and real-world living.

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About Hank Fox
  • F [nucular nyandrothol]

    You faith-stealer, you. I think you have got something there.

  • voidhawk

    I’d stake my savings on someone-somewhere offering classes in ‘spiritual healing’or whatever woo’s being peddled.

    And after a 5 second google: http://www.aetherius.org/index.cfm?app=content&SectionID=37&PageID=481

  • rikitiki

    And, as always, if those you practice your woo-woo on don’t get any
    results (or bad results), you’re blameless (didn’t fail): the fault lies with
    them because they didn’t believe/practice/pray enough. A true fail-safe
    way of life.

  • MaryL

    Lying to yourself and living in a fantasy world can have extremely serious consequences. I knew a man who believed that seeing a doctor would be detrimental because it would mean he didn’t believe in himself. This was mixed with another decision that meant he had to work three jobs to have anough money for the life he had chosen. (That choice lead to me getting out of his life.) He died of heart failure before his 50th birthday.

    I’ll stick to realism, with it’s mix of pain and failures, good feelings and successes.

  • michaelpowers

    I’ve had thoughts along those same lines. In the beginning, one of the things that made America exceptional was that there was relatively little social stigma attached to failure. America was almost pure potential, with frontiers still unexplored. One could always reinvent themselves and try again. Sadly, those days are long over.

    We’ve become so intolerant of each other that there now seems to be a zero-tolerance policy attached to just about every human endeavor. If you make a mistake, or step out of line, even a little, it’s a yoke you wear for the rest your days. You’re numbered, cataloged, and assigned a place in society that you will never be able to rise from.

    The problem with this is that nothing, and no one is perfect. Nor should they be. I’ve always found the idea of perfection to be a static, sterile thing. Eventually, the sanctions for even the smallest of failures with be so severe the people will stop takings risks. We’ll find a place, a bubble within which we will repeat the same comforting lie to ourselves until we believe it to be truth.

    If we let that happen, the result will be no more than we deserve.

  • rikitiki

    I’ve told all my kids as they were growing up that some of humanity’s
    most excellent inventions and discoveries were mistakes – someone
    was trying for one thing and, instead, got something else. So much
    for making “mistakes” or “failing.”

  • http://www.skepticali.blogspot.com skepticali

    “…some of humanity’s most excellent inventions and discoveries wee mistakes…”
    And the corollary: “if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.”

    • Dark Jaguar

      I don’t like that message. Mistakes can be too costly to make sometimes. It is often better to prepare massively to avoid making mistakes beforehand. Recklessly trying “new things” all the time tends to lead to disaster.

      I don’t know what the alternative is, but the only way I know how to live is cautiously.