Embracing Failure

Failure

Like most human adults, I fear failure. It’s bred deeply into me, a primal fear, a distaste regarding the very idea of doing poorly at something.

As an American white kid, I grew up in a grading system that measured success with letters. For some kids, Bs representing horrifying failure, and for others, Cs represented great achievement and success. I figured out early on that senses of failure and success are very individual experiences, depending on upbringing and culture (family, community, religious, etc).

We measure success against failure in a million different ways. Through our appearance and level of fitness, through our career achievements, through our romantic pursuits, through our religious duties, through our children’s successes. We have specific ideas and roadmaps of what success should look like, and anything less is automatically felt and experienced as a failure.

I see this all the time in my office as a therapist. I may have a client who owns a home, has a thriving business, and is incredible shape, but he feels like a failure because his wife is struggling with depression; I may have a client who is in an incredibly happy marriage and three thriving children, yet she is consistently unhappy because she can’t lose ten pounds.

We are constantly putting forth effort to avoid failure. And we fail to realize that in our very essences, because we are human, failure is simply a part of our existence.

I read a lot of biographies. Most biographies are written about or by people who are remembered for being a celebrity in one realm or another. And consistent failure is a part of every story, every single one of them. And even when major successes are achieved, variable failures will still follow.

David Bowie went through several different bands and band managers before his music caught on, and it was after that that he struggled with drug addiction and failed relationships. Oprah Winfrey had a career of hits and misses before her talk show caught on. Harvey Milk lost several elections before he was ever elected to public office, shortly before his assassination. John Stockton missed a lot of shots with the basketball before he made it famous on the Jazz. I could give thousands of examples.

When I look at my own life, I am realizing that failure is not a word I am afraid of any longer. I have had many successes, most easily viewed in the accomplishments of my children, who are happy and well-adjusted and creative and beautiful. I have a Masters degree. I have published a book. I have lost 80 pounds. I successfully transitioned to a full and authentic life out of the closet. I have a lot of friends and loved ones. I am engaged in pursuits that inspire my mind and fulfill my spirit.

Lately, my old fears of failure have worked their way out of my subconscious into my life. I have put a lot of energy and effort into passion projects that have born little fruit. The sinking results of these ventures, which I have put time and money and collaboration behind, have left me with a sense of dread. This, in conjunction with the death of my best friend Kurt, have left me a little empty and withdrawn internally lately, and I’ve had to take time to sort out what that means to me and my journey.

And in truth, in the scheme of things, it means very little.

Musical artists can spend hundreds of hours composing what they feel is a masterpiece, putting their entire hearts and souls behind it, only to have no one purchase the product, while the bubble gum piece they produced years before is played on the radio every ten minutes. An actress can spend months in a role she is made for only to have the movie flop commercially, while a bit part in a science fiction show makes her immortally famous. A painter can take five years to complete a masterpiece that no one will ever see.

I’m 37 now and I’m embracing the parts of me that I have avoided much of my life. I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a historian. I am a creator with a hungry and passionate soul who strives and wants and desires.

And my long-term success isn’t in my financial prowess or my academic pursuits or my physical endurance. It is in my spiritual soundness, and in my inner balance and peace, and in the smiles of my children. And in doing things that I love. And that may make me a huge success in the eyes of the world, or it may just make me quietly happy in the here and now. And either way, that is enough.

And even when I’m “enough”, failure will still be part of the journey.

Primarily Brainwashed

Primary.jpg

I grew up singing songs with the children in my Mormon ward in the Primary program, a children’s organization. Mormon kids go to Church for three hours every Sunday. One hour is spent in Sacrament meeting, where families sit together and listen to members speak on Mormon topics, singing hymns to open and close the meeting. The other two hours are spent in Primary, while the moms and dads go off to learn more about Church doctrine and topics in Sunday School, then in gender-divided group settings.

Primary divided the kids up into age groups, calling them clever things like the Blazers and the Stars and the Sunbeams, giving the kids a sense of collectiveness, and each year the kids would move into a higher age group, until turning 12, when they would join the older kids in a different part of the Church (the men become Deacons, then Teachers, then Priests, while the women become Beehives, then Laurels, then Mia Maids). The first hour would be spent instructing the kids in scripture stories with a few fun activities, learning about Noah or Nephi or Joseph Smith and how they made good choices to follow God.

And the second hour would be spent with the large group singing songs, catchy little tunes that would stick with most of the kids throughout their entire lives. Little ditties with mesmerizing tunes, all about following God and being obedient to the Church.

Just last weekend, as a 37 year old man, I heard my 4 year old son singing one of the Primary songs I had learned when I was his age. A finger-snapping little number that makes you pop up with excitement when the music crescendos. Even though he isn’t being raised Mormon, he picked the song up from a Mormon family member who had been singing it.

Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam, to shine for him each day.

In every way try to please him, at school, at home, at play.

I took a literal step back as he sang, horrified at the realization that my child, so full of love and light and creativity and wonder, was singing a song that said, in effect, that Jesus loves him and wants him to obey. No separation of the thoughts. No iteration that Jesus loves no matter what. That would be like me looking my child in the eye and delivering two thoughts at once: I love you, and I expect you to do as you are told and never disappoint me.

My brain started spinning to the dozens of Primary songs I grew up singing, tunes that I hummed hundreds of times, words that I tapped my foot along with.

Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, don’t go astray. Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, he knows the way.

Choose the right, when a choice is placed before you… Choose the right, and God will bless you ever more.

I am a child of God, and He has sent me here, has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear. Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way. Help me know what I must do to live with Him some day.

I love to see the temple, I’m going there someday… I’ll prepare myself while I am young, this is my sacred duty.

On and on and on, messages of “unconditional” love with clear conditions, with underlying messages of expected obedience, following without question, doing what you are told.

I watched my four year old idly playing with his super heroes as he sang, and I felt my hands turn cold. I pictured myself at that age, a time when I was interested in drawing and nature and birds, having no concept of sexuality or being gay at that age, and already with the expectations of self in place that I had to show my worth, earn God’s love, be good enough to be considered good.

I took a wider view of my life and saw how that programming, that brainwashing, spread across my childhood. Trying to fit in with other boys, realizing I was different and that I needed to change, entering puberty just knowing that I was broken, being promised a cure if I just tried hard enough.

In every way try to please Him, at home, at school, at play.

Then my brain shifted to the age of 15, when I received my Patriarchal Blessing, a once-in-a-lifetime event when a Priesthood holder lays his hands on your head to give you special messages from God that are meant for you. The Blessing is recorded, then typed out and given to you to reflect on again and again. My blessing, a full two pages long, talked about me serving a Mormon mission and marrying a woman, and near its conclusion was the sentence that would haunt much of my adult life, a message from God to me. “You are indeed one of Heavenly Father’s choice sons. Do not in any way disappoint Him.”

I steadied my breath in my nose, feeling an icy anger in my heart for a moment. Then I got down on all fours and picked up the Joker so my son could use his Batman to triumph. We played for a while, using cartoon voices and dramatic gestures, and Batman won again and again. And then we had a wrestling/tickle match, rolling and laughing and screaming until we collapsed onto the couch, his arms around my neck and mine around his back.

“You’re the best cuddler,” I whispered.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Hey, buddy, I need you to know something. I love you, always, and no matter what.”

He pulled back away, a no-nonsense look upon his face. “Well, duh. You’re my dad.”

And as he rushed off to play with his brother, a huge grin read across my face and all the ice melted away. Well, duh. You’re my dad. Unconditional love, accepted as fact, with no conditions. Just love.

 

Fireworks

The distant radio boomed over a hundred different speakers, all too far away to distinguish the specifics of the songs except in memory. I could easily recognize a few notes from “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”, and I knew that march by Sousa. But I couldn’t quite time the music with the fireworks. We should have brought our own radio.

But the fireworks were beautiful nonetheless.

After spending three days with my family at a reunion in lovely Island Park, Idaho, a few random assortments of my family members had made it here, to this particular hilltop, where we were watching the fireworks show in Idaho Falls, dubbed the best fireworks show in the west in all of the advertisements.

My children were up way past their bedtimes, particularly given their off-routine meal times and naptimes while we were camping. My four-year-old (soon to be five), A, was curled up in my lap, and I was whispering in his ear about the various shapes and colors of the fireworks to keep him engaged and from falling asleep. “Ooh, look at that curly one. See those sparkly ones? How many colors can you count in that one?”

My seven year old, J, was on the lap of my sister, Kathy, who was tickling his back and he nestled in to her. I spoke to him once in a while to make sure he was still awake. They could go from exhausted and ready to fall asleep to wide awake and skipping down the road in seconds flat, but I wanted to make sure that not only did they enjoy the fireworks, but that they would be ready for bed when we got back to the hotel, right when I was ready for bed; falling asleep now would mean either being up half the night or waking up at five in the morning, and I dreaded both of those possibilities.

Kathy’s husband sat next to her, and her two teenage children sat on a blanket near her feet. A mother of six, with her oldest children preparing to marry, Kathy has always been one of my favorite people. Stalwart and giving and wonderful and hilarious. I watched her hand moving on my son’s back and viewed her face, firework light reflecting on it, and realized how grateful for her I am.

My eyes shifted to a niece, turning 21 soon, and her younger brother, now 16, children of my beloved sister, Kara. These two have had rough starts and a lot of hills and valleys along the way. I see them now and wonder what their futures hold. I’m tightly bonded to these two, in ways that are difficult to understand. We have a kinship, and they have a strong hold on my heart. They are both powerful forces for good in this world.

I look back over to my sister, Susan, and see her looking at my children each in turn before she looks back over to the displays in the sky. She loves them like a parent, and spends time and energy and effort in spending time with them. It’s no wonder she is their favorite. With no children of her own, she has spent the last seven years loving my children fiercely. She makes them feel special, makes them laugh, cuddles them to sleep and cuddles them awake. I whisper to A that he should go sit on her lap for a bit, and he does, gladly.

My eyes turn back to the exploding colors on the horizon and I settle back in to my chair, my arms curled around my abdomen for warmth. I can feel the lone mosquito bite on the knuckle of one thumb, and the sting on my palm where I had pressed against a shark thistle plant on accident a bit before. My back aches slightly and I adjust my posture.

As I listen to the distant music, I reflect on this weekend and my time with family. I’m so often on my own, it’s always a strange experience to relive my origins. And I realize that this time, five years after my coming out of the closet, there was no drama or struggle or confusion about me being gay. No one pulled me aside to tell me that being gay was gross, or that they supported me no matter what, or if I was still going to be Mormon, or if I was having any problems with the family for being gay.

Instead, I had been among my relatives, just me, Chad, and his two sons. A dad parenting his children, making conversation with cousins, laughing around the fire with sisters, standing in line at the buffet table in the woods behind uncles and aunts. Just part of the family.

And this sudden realization suddenly made me more grateful than anything else.

The fireworks built up in the grand finale, a powerful conclusion with the sky lighting up in sound and color, deep resonant booms and bright cascading flashes of yellow and gold and red and orange. The fireworks ended, the music went quiet, the human voices picked up as they began gathering their things and heading toward their cars, but my eyes stayed on the sky, at the shapes of the fireworks still there in smoke on the horizon, slowly spreading and expanding against the black until they would disappear.

And as I gathered my children into my arms, I realized, not everything is fireworks. Sometimes it’s just the smoke and echo that remains afterwards, until that, too, fades.

firework