“Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world even as it forces us to face the dark side of life, love and libido” – Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure.
Recently the term failure has loomed large in my general consciousness. I feel as if the word must be tattooed on my forehead because right about now it’s all I seem to see when I look in the mirror.
From career prospects to inter-personal relationships, failure for me right now, is where it’s at. It’s where I am and at many moments, it’s who I am.
In the last month I have ‘failed’ a job interview and assignment that I felt very hopeful about and lost a person I loved very much because of (partly) my own personal failings at being a semi-functioning human being. I have also sent a myriad of mortifying messages that will now and forever live in the black hole that is social media and failed to censor the thoughts in my brain before they were launched into the world, on more than one occasion.
Despite plans to get ‘fit’ for the last year, I’ve been failing on the gym front and rather than admitting that I find absolutely no joy on the treadmill (when I first typed this, I subconsciously typed ‘dreadmill.’ From now on I might just call it that) I’ve been making up excuses about how claustrophobic the gym is. I’ve failed socially at a few events recently, and not feeling entirely myself I’ve said dumb things more often than not. There have been moments in the last year where I have acted like a monumental A-hole and behaved in ways I am not very proud of. I’m feeling a bit like Bridget Jones on steroids and up until about 20 minutes ago was resigning myself to perpetual loneliness and being eaten alive by Alsatians (and then my body not being found for a good three weeks.) Now, I’m not saying that isn’t a possibility, because at the rate I am going, it very certainly could be… But 20 minutes ago my mind flickered to a little sparkle of hope amid these dreary thoughts and generally not-winning-at-life moments.
I remembered a brilliant book that I read in a Queer Theory Seminar a few years ago : The Queer Art of Failure, by Judith Halberstam.
In this fabulous masterpiece Halberstam explores the concept of failure and begins to turn our idea of failure as a solely negative entity on its head. Living in a capitalist, heteronormative society we are often confronted with the daunting task of having to be ‘successful’ and we are taught to avoid failure at all costs. Failure, in conventional understandings equates to weakness and weakness equates to an unliveable life.
Using “low theory” and theorising popular films such as Chicken Run, Finding Nemo and Dude Where’s My Car, Halberstam examines the possibilities that moments of failure can create. In moments of failing, Halberstam argues, we might just find “surprising ways of being in the world.”
While failure always signifies some loss, it is not a wholly fatal occurrence and is also able to open up new vistas of thinking. In moments of failure, individuals are able to find new ways to navigate situations, different solutions to their problems and perhaps learn some surprising things about themselves, that had they not failed, they would never know.
The uncertainty, break-down and perplexity that failure ignites can ultimately re-orientate individuals in new ways and as such, does not equate to complete desolation or despair.
Thinking about some of my favourite films, the possibility that failure ignites is everywhere : (Ahem… Possible spoilers)
When Daniel Cleaver cheats on Bridget, she is devastated. But this failed relationship and monumental heartache leads her to far better things : AHEM…. MARK DARCY (who let’s face it, we all fancy just a little bit!) She also finds a better career path, a lot more self love and generally becomes a lot more kick-ass (even if she is drinking a lot more vodka at this point and choosing Chaka Khan.)
In The Pursuit of Happiness, Chris Gardner is faced with many ‘failures’ that eventually render him and his son homeless. In conventional understandings he is a ‘failed’ caregiver, and yet, he never fails his son and keeps fighting the good fight, despite perpetual setbacks. He continues his pursuit to find happiness and security and if anything, his conventional failures, open up a space for him to prove his strength as a father and his capacity to love and care unconditionally.
The list goes on……
Billy Elliot’s failure to live up to his fathers ideals results in him bringing his family back together and healing the trauma that his mother’s passing ignited. In Sister Act 1 and 2, stage girl Deloris Van Cartier’s (AKA Sister Mary Clarance’s) disobedience and failure to comply to the rules of the convent, leads to greater community support of the church and the eventual saving of the school. The children that society renders as ‘failures’ end up showcasing their immense musical talent in the closing scene of the film and their uncanny approach to musical performance wins them the prize. Whoopie’s lack of conventionality offers a fresh perspective and injects an element of life into the church that had long since disappeared and, that if left unchallenged, would have led to its demise.
These moments of failure are painful and at times scary, but they all make the characters realise their inner strength and usually lead to a greater sense of hope and happiness…. (after bouts of ugly crying, heartbreak and despair!)
According to Sara Ahmed “in order to be orientated [we] must first experience disorientation.” She suggests that questions of orientation are about far more than solely finding our direction but also about how we begin to feel “at home”again. I haven’t been feeling very at home for a long time and perhaps my current failings in life, and love and work right now, mean that it’s time to re-establish what home really is to me. In moments of disorientation we often have to navigate through uncharted territories, and in doing so, we need to ‘reach’ towards the unfamiliar in order to find a new point of reference. While such a ‘reach’ may constitute a loss of certain parts of one’s life, and is sometimes bloody terrifying, it also signifies the start of something new.
Maybe in loosing a relationship with someone you love dearly, you offer yourself and the other person a gift. The opportunity to begin a relationship with yourselves, without expectation. A chance to rebuild and re-orientate. Maybe in avoiding the dreadmill, you start some tap dancing classes and have so much fun that you forget you are doing exercise and spend an entire hour doing the shuffle-hop-step to Louis Armstrong with a grin on your face.
Maybe in failing to get a job you thought might be alright and might pay some bills, you’ll reach for the big dream and apply for the job that makes your heart truly dance. And perhaps you won’t get that one either, but that might just lead you down another path.
Perhaps in embarrassing situations, you’ll find out who your true friends are. They will be the ones laughing lovingly at you, listening to your stories and putting your mind at ease. They will make you bacon butties when you are hungover, or cuddle you when you’re crying and feel like your world is over and you will never love again. They will send you inspiring Pintrest quotes when life feels too painful and they will be there with you at the bar, handing you shots of tequila, so that everyone thinks your misty eyes are a result of strong spirits and not generally depressed ones.
Perhaps messing a few things up and acting in ways that terrify you, will give you the push to ask for help. In the dark, failed, upsetting moments, perhaps you will find one single moment of clarity that changes your entire world. A moment of courage where you take the leap to work through past pain and fear so that you can be better and do better and love better and live better.
Failure offers us a lesson in humility and in a word of endless greed, competition and pride, we really could do with a little more kindness and compassion.
Failure means that we tried. We took a leap. We had courage. We’ve learnt all the ways that didn’t work and can begin again to try and find some ways that will. I don’t get it right a lot of the time. I often replay the failed situations in my mind, berating myself about what I coulda, shoula, woulda done, but I’m trying (with many failures in-between) to be a little kinder to myself.
I’m learning slowly that failure doesn’t signify the end at all. If anything, it might just be a gift. It offers us a new possibility, a new beginning and perhaps an even more ‘surprising’ way of being in our world.