Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger in the broken places.”
Stronger in the broken places? People in recovery or who’ve recovered from other significant wounds of the heart and soul, often necessarily adopt a philosophy that serves to turn their tragedies into strengths.
I do the same, and to a great extent, this reasoning seems sound. People in 12-step programs are often the only people I know who diligently work on issues of character and self-exploration. It’s often said religious people fear going to hell, but spiritual people — those who’ve faced major failures, or personal calamities like addiction — have already been there and fear going back.
So the armies of the recovered use their scars as armor against the world, many as if these old wounds were badges of honor.
But let me attest that even though crises can build character, it’s still an anchor of shit around your neck, one I’d just as soon sever and let sink into the deepest canyons of the coldest polar seas. To fail offers lessons, yes, but it can also become a titanic struggle to walk around knowing that you’ve left one more dungheap in someone else’s front yard. To walk around with any kind of purpose or destination, anyway.
Failures and great errors in performance never occur in a vacuum. Perfectly effective, responsible people are almost universally left with the messes us flawed few have left behind. It’s embarrassing, humbling and fraught with the potential for lifelong personality scars for the frayed lot, as well as a burden to all their innocent associates who inevitably get left holding bandages over wounds that fester with someone else’s germs.
My wife, for example, has too often been handed a helping of warm shit because of my character defects, as have friends, employers, colleagues and family — people I respect and in many cases love whose only mistake was to trust in me, or worse, care — during one of my bad moments.
If they were grains of sand, the sorrys I’ve uttered could cover all the beaches and litter boxes the world over. If only they had as much utility.
Life then becomes a balance of recognizing when failure may occur — and either producing the strenth and mental energy to fix the poor performance or excise oneself from a bad situation while doing your damn best to minimize the wreckage — and learning from those failures that do occur to continue the agonizingly slow and imperfect process of cultivating character.
Above all, you need to keep your head up. Because giving full throat to the cacophonic chorus of critical self-analysis would only paralyze you further, creating more problems, and perhaps permanently prevent the sort of progress we all need to make to lead any kind of a well considered, successful life.
I read an article recently on the state of parenting in our culture. It focused on the almost neurotic pursuit of many parents today in seeking to completely remove risk from their child’s lives. By removing risk, the parents remove failure from their child’s lexicon of experience, and thereby disadvantage those kids for a lifetime.
The article spoke of a hunter-gatherer tribe in some far-flung corner of this planet’s few remaining frontiers. A visiting American saw a child about to stick his hand into the flames of a campfire and reacted as most Americans would — she slapped the child’s hand away in fear, and explained in a pained voice that fire is hot.
The natives were not amused. Much better that the child take the risk and singe his fingers once than become dependent on others forever to know what in life should be avoided, and what pursued.
This is the syndrome of my parenting generation. Children of the 1970s and 1980s were more adventurous in how they were allowed to approach and interact with the world.
“Be home before dark,” was the mantra of my summers. The tanned and scruffy kids of my group would head out in the morning on bikes, front wheels aimed at high adventure along the Tuolomne River in the Central Valley. Were we always as safe as our mothers would have liked? No. Did we all survive? Yes.
Would I trade even one of those memories to save myself a skinned knee, a wrecked bike or two? Not on your life.
While I don’t advocate letting kids play with fire, I can see where a taste of failure in childhood here and there, with all the proper emotional support, could help build character early on and so preclude the onslaught of generations of people who’ve had to learn the hard way what it is to fail, and how to manage those “teachable moments.”
While as my story suggests, a singed paw won’t prevent future failures, who knows how well I’d be able to bounce back if Ma had wrapped me in teflon and locked me in a padded room? I recovered from every kind of bike wreck a young boy can suffer, and really, how much worse is the wreckage we make today?
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.