The Wings of Defeat

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To fail is to achieve the unexpected. But it is still an achievement, however unintentional. There is no way of failing utterly.

Perhaps there is no way of failing at all. Perhaps there are only ways of changing one's destination, or of recoiling for a leap, or of misreading a traffic sign that stands before a new major road in our careers. (Even the stop signs do not mean "Abandon the journey"; they mean "Wait before proceeding." They may mean care; they never mean cowardice. They often require a new direction.)

What of dead ends? It is impossible to arrive at one without having traveled - and travel is an achievement. Furthermore, every dead-end street has one end open; the way in is also a way out. It may not be the only way out: Some creatures burrow out of dead ends; some climb the walls; some fly.

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So a check is not a failure.

In tennis, when a hard service is returned, the ball is momentarily stopped and flattened on the receiver's racket. The greater the flattening, the greater the rebound. A football may feel battered by the boots of fate, but every kick has a purpose; and the goals will come as the ball keeps bouncing.

He who will not surrender cannot be defeated, no matter what the odds against him, no matter how untenable his position appears. But even giving up the struggle is not a defeat; it's a deliberate choice, a decision no enemy can force on us; we make it - or reject it - for ourselves.

I think we should make it only when we discover that we're in the wrong struggle, or that we're in the right struggle at the wrong time.

A popular psychological doctrine suggests that many people secretly desire to fail; their welcome defeats are oblique, sad victories; and the sadness lies not in the defeat but in the desire for it. Such failures are secret and successful protests, but the shadows of the mind are not my subject here. I am discussing the failures suffered openly, unwanted. I think they are never what they seem.

Viewed long afterward, when we have traveled so far beyond an apparent failure that we can look back on it and see it in the context of its future, a defeat may be revealed as a victory. Perhaps it is always revealed as a victory, when we come to understand.

He who attempts and fails has nevertheless achieved something: an attempt - a venture - an endeavor. And this is real: A venture is a whole thing. Success and failure are separate things, which neither qualify nor disqualify the venture.

Because every endeavor is a complete event, independent of its outcome, there is more honor in venturing gloriously than in venturing ingloriously. The outcome merely ends the chapter; but the way we live our life-story is what matters, not the way each chapter ends. A new chapter begins at once.

In the hardheaded, hard-handed, soft-witted world, it is considered more sensible to sit like a pudding and attempt nothing than to attempt a great thing and fail. This numb and doddering philosophy is not sensible; it is insensible. It is a caution more dangerous than recklessness, and nations that practice it will decay and fall.

Who knows what failure is, or success? Can any human being understand so subtle and mysterious a thing? To evaluate a single step in any human life, we need to understand where that life is going - and we don't. Yet we confidently exalt what we call victory over what we call defeat.

"Nice guys," we are told, "finish last." The inference is unmistakable: Better to cheat and win than to play fair and lose: To lose with grace is to lose with disgrace. These are the ethics of little minds and cringing expectations, which see the night approaching and believe there will never be another day.

But what if there will be another day? - and another day, and eternity? What if victory and defeat are only different ways of looking at an incident in an unending narrative? What if nice guys are actually winning all the time because quality of life, not "victory," is eternity's trophy and joy?

IN such a context, failure never comes at the end of an endeavor; it comes at the beginning. Inert timidity is failure; active courage is success. Meanness is disaster and defeat; generosity is already a victory. What matters in this context is not the outcome but the input.

An event that the world calls "failure" is merely the proof of having tried. It is a far more solid evidence of courage and vitality than success is. Success can come without trying - in which case it is no more a victory than sleep is action.

History blazes with the names of people who failed often before they reached their victories; their failures actually powered their success. Defeat neither finished nor diminished them; it armed and armored them. Van Gogh had failed in several careers before he began to paint - and even after he had succeeded magnificently, he thought he had failed. So we need to recognize our own successes, and to do so when we see them, not when other people say they see them. What do other people know about the deep things that move us? Rembrandt was painting masterpieces when the world thought he was a failure. He knew better.

Sometimes the thing we learn from "failure" is that we have been fighting the wrong battle, or traveling in the wrong direction. To discover this is a major victory.

Sometimes it seems that the highest points in our past are crowding behind us, driving us forward, preventing us from taking our ease. We are pursued by the mountains of our yesterdays, and there is no escape except on the ocean of the unknown. Yet, if we embark gladly on those dark, exhilarating waters, we find that the tide is bearing us toward horizons of morning and mountains of fulfillment we had hardly dared to imagine before this blessed catastrophe.

SOMETIMES failure is a sign that we have aimed too high for our present strength - but if the aim is right the strength will come; and meanwhile even the failure is a kind of success. "Who shoots at the midday sun," said Sir Philip Sidney some four centuries ago, "though he be sure he shall never hit the mark, yet as sure he is he shall shoot higher than he who aims but at a bush." Those who aim high may fail, but it is a failure more honorable than the success of those who aim low. And it may achieve far more.

And one day our upward arrow will break loose from the cage of gravitation and hit the sun squarely. Consumed in light, it will become light.

I think the fear of failure is really something else - fear of disappointment, fear of wasting time or toil or money, fear of ridicule. These anxieties are invented enemies, and they can't defeat us unless we use them as weapons against ourselves. We don't have to do that.

Defiance of failure is a victory already.

* This essay first ran in the Monitor of July 27, 1973. It was recently brought to our attention, and we thought it worthy of sharing with another generation of Home Forum readers.

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