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The Wings of Defeat

By Neil Millar / October 1, 1997



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

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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.

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.