How is it possible to feel happy and sad at the same time? I tasted that bittersweetness as I walked the campus of a college I attended almost 30 years ago. The landmarks of warm memories were still there: majestic buildings, the elegant gym, the cozy dining hall. Then I came to a place with great poignancy for me: the dorm where I had proposed marriage to a young woman. She accepted and we married soon after. Despite our best intentions though, it was an unhappy union. Four years later the marriage was over, leaving both of us exhausted, devastated and not a little ashamed of our failure.
Aside from the death of loved ones, the lost love from broken relationships may well be the most common source of persistent grief and regret for most people. Fraught is the path to love, it seems, with so few reliable road maps. Psychologist Sue Johnson remarks that forming a primary, trusting love relationship is the main survival tactic for our species. It is a great mystery that most of us have to struggle so hard, risk so much, and fail so often to accomplish something so necessary for our well-being. How does anyone go through life without relationship regrets? If only we could wipe away these sad and humiliating experiences our lives would be just fine, we’d like to think. Or better yet, we’d prefer being invulnerable to that anguish in the first place.
We apply this keen desire to avoid painful emotions to a lot more than the sorrows of lost love. We’d like our striving in life to bring an unbroken string of success and happy feelings about our place in the world. The good life we desire, and perhaps feel entitled to, would be better served by reaching our goals rather than being thwarted from them, we reason. But alas, we fail, we fall short, we miss the clutch shot, we commit blunders in life and we suffer.
Our failure is a double loss: there’s the substance of the goal unwon, but perhaps worse is the blow to one’s self-confidence to meet the demands of life, one’s damaged sense of agency in the world. The more entitled we feel to the desired outcome, the more catastrophic is the failure to the sense of self. What does it say about me if my legitimate desire, good intentions, and best effort aren’t enough to produce success? When my insufficiencies are laid bare before my eyes, how am I supposed to feel about myself? In the aftermath of my divorce, I felt intolerably wretched.
My elderly father reached out to me then, inviting me along on his daily trips to the town recreation center “for a light workout.” This was really a time for him to take an extended steam bath and see his friends, usually three or four retirees like my dad, who didn’t mind the stifling hot steam I could barely tolerate. I liked the lively and candid conversation in there, so I always forced myself to endure the heat and listen.
The men exchanged stories, generally not about their successes in life, but mostly about how they had screwed up this or that. Their stories were hilarious and full of insight. These were materially successful men of high stature in the community. They were also emotionally mature men, now literally and figuratively naked, who fully accepted themselves, it seemed to me. They found great fellowship in their common “weaknesses” openly shared. There was no need to impress anyone with what they possessed or what they had done. There was not a hint of competitiveness in their conversation.
A frequent theme in the stories was the necessity of the failure that preceded their success. Sometimes the misfortune was unjust, but mostly the men were the perpetrators of their own folly. But far from feeling bitter, guilt-ridden, or regretful over failures, I observed in the men a sense of gratitude about how their lives unfolded. They had in common a winsome humility expressed as kindness and generosity. I felt nurtured by the unguarded masculine energy in their presence, an unusual display of strength and vulnerability, and I think my father found emotional sustenance as well.
This was a strange experience to have with my dad, with whom I had learned to never be vulnerable. For decades our difficult relationship alternated between periods of hot and cold wars, open conflicts and long, quiet truces. The trust between us was brittle. Straightforward expressions of difficult feelings between us led quickly to reactive, defensive arguments. We loved each other, but we couldn’t seem to connect in a way we both understood as acceptance by the other.
He was a boisterous, entertaining storyteller. But with these men, who seemed like apparitions through the steam, my father was uncharacteristically quiet. I believe both he and I were silent because we recognized we were in the presence of exceptional men. I came to see my inclusion there as an act of fatherly love. My dad, in generous humility, was allowing other men to instruct his son in the higher ways of the examined life.
I deeply enjoyed the company of these men, and yet I still struggled to accept their main message: that an open-minded stance towards my own vulnerabilities and failures would be a freeing and strengthening experience. I found it distasteful, even dangerous, to relinquish the belief that my worth and happiness depended on succeeding at things, not failing. To feel strong at life I thought I needed to increase my sense of agency in the world. Instead, these men suggested a sense of limitation must be recognized and accepted, within which influence could be exercised effectively.
In his book about finding one’s lifework, Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte agrees with that view:
We have the strange idea, unsupported by any evidence, that we are loved and admired only for our superb strength, our far-reaching powers, and our all-knowing competency…. We try to construct a life in which we will be perfect, in which we will eliminate awkwardness, pass by vulnerability, ignore ineptness, only to pass through the gate of our lives and find, strangely, that the gateway is vulnerability itself. The very place we are open to the world whether we like it or not….[is real] intimacy…based on mutual vulnerability.
This may seem cliche to some, that vulnerability to failure precedes success. But it is nonetheless true, not merely because “losing” illuminates the techniques of “winning.” Failure imparts necessary knowledge of self, which brings new meaning to both winning and of losing. When two highly trained boxers stand in the ring, they’ve placed themselves in a state of intense vulnerability. If the fighters give it everything they’ve got, they may embrace at the end of the bout, no matter who wins. Why the embrace, when moments before they were each trying to take the other’s head off? The answer has to do with how meeting a worthy adversary furthered the common quest for self-definition. A post-fight embrace may be the sign of a more nuanced and internal success for both fighters: an expanded sense of self. What a fascinating paradox, that accepting our limits can expand the inner life.
To know the limits of yourself is to know yourself. That knowledge of self and the acceptance of self is deeply gratifying because in that state, shame is lifted. This benefit is a radically higher order of human good than the mere attainment of a temporal goal. The lifting of shame is a prerequisite for intimacy with another, the thing we may desire above all else. Yet there’s risk involved. In intimacy, our vulnerability raises the possibility of emotional injury. Over time we learn if the other is worthy of that trust. Often they are not, and so we may learn to regard those experiences shamefully and turn away from our supposed failures. I learned through years of painful experience how to avoid being vulnerable. Predictably, this was a recipe for loneliness.
What I observed in the older men of the steam bath was authentic humility: an accurate view of one’s own limits. Accepting those limits produced abundant inner lives in them that had no need to take refuge in resentment, self-pity, or grandiosity. An abundant inner life is freer of anxiety because it can say, “No matter what my circumstances, I’m going to be okay.” The evidence of this freedom from fear is a non-judgmental kindness towards others, a magnetic goodness that made it pleasant to sit in their company.
The men in the steam bath also demonstrated a high level of thinking and wise exercise of their energies in the world. The Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr affectionately describes such a man as a Holy Fool for whom “…being human is more important than self-image, role, power, prestige or possessions. He can lead, partner or follow when necessary. He has it all!”
As I tried to apply this thinking to what I considered a personal failure, my marriage, the painful question that first reverberated in my mind was, “What was it all for?” A more penetrating question turned out to be, “What choices did I make here to avoid feeling vulnerable that led to a loss of connection?” The answers to this question gave me new and useful information about my deep needs and my fears. I wanted to feel I was a strong man. Could I accept the man I was, a mixture of strength and vulnerability? Could I be okay with feeling happy and sad about myself at the same time?
Addressing these difficulties was uncomfortably hot at first. But I adjusted to the heat, as in the steam bath, and a healthful receptivity to change opened inside me. I caught a glimpse of why I needed my failures: how else would I learn to know and accept the real me? This information is now central to my well-being in life and is more precious to me than any knowledge, skill or trophy.