It was 1999, with all its cosmological portent—the coming of a new century, a new millennium. But I didn’t attend to much of it, stuck as I was in my own “slough of despond,” as John Bunyan once called it.
After 20 years in newspaper journalism, 15 of them at one newspaper, steadily working my way up in positions of increasing prominence and visibility, I had, without entirely knowing how or why, been bumped out of a job I loved. Oh, I could say it wasn’t my fault, that it was economic pressure—pressures, really, that were affecting the whole industry, forcing the cutbacks that my employer undertook.
My new assignment had me working second shift, parked in front of a computer for eight hours a day picking over other people’s copy. To say I was unhappy doesn’t quite tell it. What it really felt like was repudiation, a judgment that I had been weighed and found wanting, that I had not simply failed but that I was, in fact, a failure.
Anticipating the direction where my life seemed to be taking me, I asked the people organizing worship services at the UU church we attended whether I might address the subject in a worship service. Sure, they said.
And thus emerged my sermon, “The Art of Failing.” I cringe a bit now looking back at it. I certainly felt very brave standing in front of those folks confessing my misfortune and asserting that there was some “art” to be found in that moment. We’ve all heard the talk—lemons into lemonade, making “beautiful” failures that bring us to some transformative place. In the moment, though, it was hard to see how that could happens. Most of what I remember feeling at the time was how hollow the message coming from my mouth felt in my own ears.
Failing isn’t something that we like to dwell on much, and the further on we get in our lives the less such losses feel like setbacks and the more they feel like existential judgments. It’s said that when you’re in your 20s or early 30s you have a narrative running in your head: “I’m young, I have promise.
I have everything going for me.” Setbacks, sure, but you recalibrate, lick your wounds and move on.
For me, this sermon came right about the time of my 46th birthday. Whatever narrative I might have thought I was living had faded, and the passing of time was taking on new weight. I was in need of a new story, but where would it come from?
Beginning again—it’s a fact of life. Jobs change, marriages end, stuff happens. We need to let something go and find a new direction. Where do we start? It’s tempting to begin, as I did, by making our lives as full as possible. I began scrambling for free-lance writing jobs, bearing down on my resume and getting it around. All productive stuff at one level, but also in many ways it was work to keep my frantic mind occupied. If I was busy, I wouldn’t have to dwell on the fear and sadness I was feeling. But at the same time this busyness kept me from opening to something new.
The Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön remarks that fear often arises from a sense of poverty, a feeling that we are lacking something and we need to scramble somehow to find it and fill our gaping need. We can’t relax with ourselves. Instead, we are preoccupied by this script that runs as if on a loop, repeating over and over, reciting our inadequacies. Wherever we go, it runs like elevator music, below the level of our consciousness, until every once in a while something happens that seems to reinforce this script. Then, the music swells and we’re reminded: there it is again, proof of our inadequacy.
Where’s the way out? Perhaps it helps to think of the process of beginning as a discipline. Oddly enough, in this circumstance, beginning starts with a full stop. Like rebooting a balky computer, we need to disrupt the scripts and simply be present to ourselves: unrated, unevaluated, unjudged. Let the busy mind settle down: enter into a moment where we are not awaiting, not hoping, not longing; just welcoming, accepting.
Here we find a moment of what the Buddhists call maitri, a complete acceptance or unconditional friendship with ourselves as we are. It’s not something new that suddenly arises. It’s not a matter of fixing or improving some debility, making up for some lack; rather a settled awareness of and appreciation for who we are. It is, in essence, accepting our inherent worthiness.
Pema Chödrön is careful to distinguish this from the phenomenon that she calls “self cherishing.” This is essentially the practice of seeking always to protect and comfort ourselves, seeking to assure that we are always happy and in no distress. To do this, though, we put up walls against potentially disturbing experiences and become self-absorbed.
Which is, as the Buddhists say, the root of all suffering, and it is the center of our experience of failure. Failure, after all, is the experience of falling short of our expectations. And where does the expectation come from? Well, it is the dream of the ego. We cherish this image that we have constructed of ourselves. We persuade ourselves that it is us—marvelous, wonderful us. We may even grow a feeling of entitlement. It’s what we’re due, after all. We’ve put in the time; we’ve hit the marks.
But, no. Sorry. Not going to happen. We can rant, we can weep, we can withdraw, and still, there it is—evidence, in the end, not of our unworthiness, but of the unworthy expectations we have created for ourselves.
And here the Buddhists offer an interesting perspective that takes some reflecting to sort through. They say that we need to just sit, letting go of the scripts, the expectations, the assignments we give to ourselves. And with all of that cleared out, something appears: something true, something good.
Here’s where the twist comes in: Pema Chödrön argues that as soon as we begin to know ourselves, we begin to forget ourselves. We no longer need to be so self-involved.
Perhaps life is less like the scroll of a heroic journey than a series of improv workshops. And we could hardly want a better guide on this path than Tina Fey.
So, here we are, you and I, entering this improv scene. One or another of us, or perhaps the leader of our workshop, or someone from the audience, tosses a premise into our midst. What do we do? Well, calling the game off or withdrawing into ourselves isn’t an option. We’re in this. The only way forward is through.
And what does Tina say? The first rule of improvisation is: agree. Don’t question the premise, don’t dispute the scene. Accept it and then engage with those that you’re thrown in with. Our own ego fades into the background as we give ourselves to the circumstances before us. Start with a “Yes,” Tina says, and see where that takes you.
But don’t stop there. During improvisation, we need to do more than just say yes to the situation. We also need to add something of our own—our own insight, our own compassion, our own genius. This doesn’t mean pontificating or philosophizing or otherwise commenting on the situation at hand. It means stepping in and helping to advance the action, to move the situation forward.
That’s the second rule of improvisation. Don’t be afraid to contribute. Launch into it. Anything that keeps the action moving keeps the scene alive.
And in making your contributions don’t be timid or tentative. The least helpful addition to the scene would be questions. What’s going on? Where are we? Who are you? Your guess is as good as mine. In posing questions, we take ourselves out of the scene and put the onus on others to move it forward. Take ownership of your perspective, your insight, your vision. You may open a wonderful new direction for the scene to take.
And that, of course, leads to what Tina Fey calls “the best rule,” the fundamental assumption underlying all improv work: There are no mistakes, only opportunities!
Really? I mean, sure, this is fun—life is an improv workshop. I get it. But there are no mistakes? I don’t know about you, but I make all kinds of mistakes, and some of them are real whoppers. “Only opportunities”? Isn’t that a little Pollyannaish?
Well, okay. Let me tweak that a little. Yeah, we make mistakes. Perhaps a better way to put it is: There are no failures. Failure, remember, implies exhausting our resources, coming to an end. Our mistakes do not bring us to an end, they merely bring us up short.
Like working through an improv scene that gets convoluted and confused, we discover that we need to shift gears and find a different path. It may not be newspaper journalism any more. Perhaps it’s a line of work that not only provides an outlet for writing but also opens up my heart.
So, yes, opportunities. Happy accidents, in Tina Fey’s words. We are offered many opportunities in our lives to begin again: to find our callings, to begin new relationships, to let go of unhelpful scripts. And we begin by making friends with ourselves, the jumble of experience, insight and aptitude that we carry into the abundant reality of the world. We say yes and contribute.
Before entering Meadville Lombard Theological School, he was a newspaper journalist for 25 years, working for the Milwaukee,(WI) Journal (now Journal-Sentinel) and the Charleston (WV) Gazette. He is a life-long UU and married for 37 years to Debbie, with three grown daughters and two granddaughters.