The Limitations of Failure and the Deception of Imagination

When you have come to your wits end, when you have reached the end of your abilities, when you have exhausted all of your resources, when you have nothing left to give, no ability to receive, and you lie spent on the rock bottom floor of your own capabilities – dig a little deeper!

I’m paraphrasing part of the message that was given at a good friend’s wedding. 

It’s the same message, essentially, that J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame gave to the graduates of Harvard this year

Not surprisingly, I have the same issues with this message as I read it today as I did hearing it on a windy parapet a decade ago. 

Rowling basically says that failure is empowering and imagination is ennobling.  The core of the message is that you have everything you need within you.  All you need to do is to make sure that you’re tapped into the right vein of yourself, rather than letting others dictate to you the terms you live your life on, and you’re destined for greatness.  Greatness of heart.  Greatness of experience.  Greatness of life.  Rowling doesn’t spell out these destinies explicitly, but they’re implicit in how she speaks and what she has to say.

Because of  these implied successes that the proper state of mind and the proper utilization of one’s own talents and gifts should foster, failure ultimately can become a very damaging process and imagination can become a condemnation of those around us who do not enjoy the same successes that we do.  The bottom line of this appealing philosophy is this – failure sucks, but it’s not entirely real.  You can get out of it.  You can overcome it.  You have to overcome it.  You have the ability to do so buried within you, you just have to realize it and access it. 

Which of course, implies that anyone who fails, or remains stuck in failure, is not living up to their potential.  Is not recognizing their ability.  Is – for whatever reasons and the reasons may vary wildly – not doing everything they could or should.  Is – in a very real sense then – to blame for their continued failure and their inability to extricate themselves from whatever circumstances of war or poverty or sickness or disease they may find themselves in.  The valiant and worthy persevere and overcome.  The rest are cannon fodder. 
This is empowerment through failure indeed, but of a dark and twisted kind that I’m sure the villains of Ms. Rowling’s works would take great delight in encouraging.  Failure becomes the litmus test of our worthiness, our mettle.  It weeds out the weak and favors only those who are able and willing to overcome it.  It leads ultimately to the destruction of the empathy that Ms. Rowling speaks so glowingly about under the term imagination

Regarding imagination, Ms. Rowling quotes Plutarch, who wrote: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

This is true in both the best and worst sense.

In the best sense, the changes that occur within us do affect reality around us, do impact the people in our lives.  But because of how little we achieve inwardly – left to our own devices and resources – external reality remains tragically much the same in our world today as it was in Plutarch’s.  There remains the small private beauties and joys, but there also remains suffering on a staggering level.  People remain imprisoned by the inward lack of change in their leaders as well as themselves.  What Plutarch and Ms. Rowling both key into is the idea that things not only ought to be a different way, they can be a different way.  Where they both fail to hit the mark is in resting the soul authority and agent of those changes within themselves, within me, within humanity.

Humanity has consistently demonstrated in the most abysmal ways possible our fundamental inability to achieve inwardly what is necessary to change outer reality.  Humanism is a glorious battle speech before an army lunges forward and off a cliff like proverbial lemmings.  We are not defeated in the battle with our world because we’re never really engaged in that battle.  We experience the crushing power of defeat before we ever reach the enemy, because we are in many ways our worst and most potent enemy. 

This is the true nature of defeat and failure, to have spent oneself totally and to still fail.  To have hit rock bottom without so much as a spoon to continue digging deeper.  To be in our hour of need and have no one to lend us a hand because they are hitting their own private bottoms as well.  To recognize that it is not a matter of attitude or aptitude, of capability or probability as to whether or not we can triumph over adversity.  That when push comes to shove, and if our backs should ever truly be up against the wall, we will find that we cannot move, and that there is nowhere to move to.  Our external reality will remain direly the same because our internal nature is so woefully broken and unable to move.

Ms. Rowling chides those who romanticize poverty and struggle and failure, and yet she herself does just that by failing to see it for what it is.  And imagination in a situation like that is more likely to lead to madness or delusion, rather than a beautifying of the external reality. 

I work with people from time to time who appear to be at the end of their ropes for one reason or another.  Their marriage is flawed and crumbling.  They’re moments away from homelessness, and hours away from their last meal.  Most are quite capable people, but they have found themselves in situations where their capabilities are no longer adequate to the challenges they face.  I do not counsel them to dig deeper into themselves, because it insults them by insinuating that somehow, they haven’t already done this.  Rather, I point them to the only One that is capable of bringing light into their darkness, who can lead them out of the pit with hope and joy, who can provide them with the patience to endure whatever it is that they are enduring at the moment. 

I don’t glorify failure or imagination or any other human attribute or situation, because those are ultimately the darkest corridors of despair.  I know that from experience – mine as well as the experiences of countless other people I have met and never will meet. 

At graduation, it is good to exhort people, to encourage them, to point a way to them that might guide and inspire them.  But to hold up a mirror to them and show them themselves as their own encouragement, their own way, their own guide, their own inspiration – is ultimately to do the worst disservice to them.  It forges chains of fear and self-loathing far more powerful than the prison cells of miscreant nations around the world.  It points them ultimately to the pit – whether they recognize it for what it is or not.  Graduates need more than themselves as guides in this world – we all do.  And we all recognize that at one level or another.  Painting a glorious but false image of ourselves will never help us, it will only damn us.

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