Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Thoughts from a Cabin Feverish Brain

I finally finished my resolutions for the new year. In my defense, I don't simply list the standard tropes: lose weight, write a novel, go to Tahiti, stop abusing heroin. Resolutions are essentially a plan for improvement for the next year. By January 2011, when I look back, what will I need to see to consider the year to be satisfactory? From there, it is simple to plan out a list of accomplishments, and then due dates (let's face it, without a set date of completion, as well as a set list of measurable goals, resolutions are merely good intentions).

I don't think I have ever been happy with my progress. In fact, 2009 will go down as an annus horribilissimus in so many ways, and in some ways 2010 ain't looking good, either. But I still lay out my goals, in the vain hope that this year things will improve.

Thinking about it, however, there is an odd comfort in failure. To be the best at something requires a great deal of effort, a great deal of pressure, and an attendant pride. To be a failure doesn't merely release us from that pressure to continually feed the success, it frees us from the dangers of pride. To be a failure is to be free.

The thought of failure, as a husband, as a father, as a teacher, as a man keeps me up at night. In an endless round of accusation and shame, I inevitably compare myself to my father, unfavorably, and fear for my sons, who have only me as their example.

But as fearsome as it can be, there is liberation that comes with failure. Growing up, we all nurse grand ambitions for ourselves. If I recall, I wanted at times to be an astronaut, a geologist, a prominent historian, possibly an actor. I am none. But I also don't carry myself with the vanity that accompanies the great. I find I don't desire attention or praise. Perhaps my failure has been granted to me as a shield. Perhaps God, knowing that I would be an asshole were I famous, blessed me with the ignominy that keeps me more or less normal.

Perhaps failure has fostered a sense of humility.

One of my favorite books is the Lord of the Rings; as much as the story is about Frodo, I often wonder if the true hero of the piece isn't Sam Gamgee, the loyal friend of Frodo. At one point in the story, Sam takes possession of the Ring, to prevent it from falling into the hands of Sauron, when Frodo is taken to the Tower of Cirith-Ungol. When time comes for Sam to return the Ring to Frodo, he is tempted to keep it.

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.

When faced with the ultimate power of command, Sam's temptation is to create a beautiful garden. Even in the face of that, his common sense comes to the rescue:

…he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command

I sometimes grant myself the conceit that I could be like Samwise. Instead of fearing failure, should I not indeed embrace it, and understand it for what it is: an encouragement to humility, to an awareness of my true place in the order of things? Great men are born for great things. It is a perversion of the times that more and more people are beginning to envision themselves as great men.