How is it possible to feel happy and sad at the same time? Recently 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 that held 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, it turned out to be an unhappy union. Four years later the marriage ended, leaving both of us exhausted, ashamed of our failure, and feeling foolish.
Aside from the death of loved ones, the lost love from broken relationships may well be our most common source of persistent grief and regret. It seems like the path to lasting love is fraught, with few reliable road maps. According to psychologist Sue Johnson, 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? We would like to think that if only we could wipe away these sad and humiliating experiences our lives would be just fine. Or better yet, we’d prefer being invulnerable to that anguish in the first place.
The sorrows of lost love aren’t the only painful emotions we are keen to avoid. We strive for the thrill of success in all areas of life, and we trust that achieving our goals will produce happy feelings about our places in the world. We reason the good life we seek would be better served by reaching our goals rather than being thwarted from them. But alas, we fail, we fall short, we miss the clutch shot, we commit blunders in life, and we suffer setbacks.
Our failure is often 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 favorable 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 wretched.
My father reached out to me then, inviting me along on his daily trips to the town recreation center “for a light workout.” This included an extended steam bath with his friends who, like my father, didn’t mind the stifling hot steam I could barely tolerate. I enjoyed the lively and candid conversation in there, so I always forced myself to endure the heat and to listen carefully.
These were materially successful men of high stature in the community. They exchanged personal stories, generally not about their successes in life, but mostly about how they had screwed up this or that. Their accounts were hilarious and full of insight. It seemed to me they were also emotionally mature men, now literally and figuratively naked, who fully accepted themselves. 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 their stories was the necessity for failure that preceded success. Sometimes the misfortune was unjust, but mostly the men were the perpetrators of their own folly. Far from feeling bitter, guilt-ridden, or regretful over failures, these men seemed grateful about how their lives had turned out. They shared 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 with them as well.
This was an unusual experience to have with my father. For decades our difficult relationship alternated between periods of hot and cold wars, open conflicts and long, quiet truces. Attempts to express honest feelings too often deteriorated into 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. I learned to avoid telling him what I really thought and felt.
In a group situation he was normally a boisterous, entertaining storyteller who commanded the room. 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 in the steam bath gathering as an act of fatherly love. In generous humility, my father allowed other men to instruct his son in the higher ways of the examined life. We both benefitted because in this group we could partake in deep emotions together in an unthreatening way. In the hazy cloak of the steam bath, my father could more comfortably be my dad.
I deeply appreciated the company of these men, and yet I still struggled to accept their main message: that if I were open-minded toward my own vulnerabilities and failures, I would be a freer and stronger man. Yet I found it distasteful, even dangerous, to relinquish the belief that my worth and happiness depended on succeeding at things, not failing. I thought that to feel free and strong required I take command over the structures in my life, to increase my sense of agency in the world. By word and deed, these men affirmed something else: that one must recognize and accept one’s limitations to reach the place of our deepest needs.
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.
It 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 to losing.
When two highly trained boxers stand in the ring, they’ve placed themselves in a position of intense vulnerability. If the fighters give their absolute best effort, they may embrace at the end of the bout, no matter who is the victor. Why the embrace, when moments before they were each trying to take the other’s head off? Because 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: the clarity an expanded sense of self. What a fascinating paradox, that accepting our limitations can expand the inner life.
Limits are external forces imposed by the social structures, institutions, and relationships around us. Limitations are the shortcomings within ourselves: the deficiencies, failures, frailties, and weaknesses shaping thoughts and actions. One’s limitations are constantly rubbing against one’s limits, and the chafing is often measured by degrees of suffering: felt stress, anxiety, or sadness. However, seen as an opportunity for self-discovery, the friction between one’s limits and limitations produces indispensable knowledge for life. To see your limits and to understand your limitations is to know yourself.
What I observed in the older men of the steam bath was authentic humility: the emotional freedom that accompanies this acceptance of one’s own limitations when they have been truly tested. Once accepted, the men there no longer needed to take refuge in resentment, self-pity, or grandiosity. The evidence of this freedom is a non-judgmental kindness toward others that made it pleasant to be in their company.
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!”
My steam bath friends were a pack of Holy Fools. They gently introduced me to a new perspective about what it meant to be strong and what it looked like to be free. Could I accept the man I was, and find my freedom and strength from an honest appraisal of myself? Could I be okay with the bittersweetness of surrendering my old and rigid view of what made me strong and capable in life?
I now grasp better how dearly I need a sober view of my limitations. This openness toward my life experience is now central to my well-being. And its lessons are more precious to me than any recognition, award, or trophy.