Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What does it mean to fail?

The piece below was written as the second in the series for my friend's website. Success? came before this one. As a postscript to this second piece, you should know that the friend I mention in it has since acquired a home that she is delighted to call her own. All is well that ends well.

“Remember: happiness is not dependent on who you are or what you have, it depends solely on what you think.”

Gautama Buddha

This week, a friend of mine put in an offer on a house. She has been house hunting for two years and had not seen anything that captivated her. Till now. A small Craftsman cottage called out to her from the moment she laid eyes on it. She sent me pictures, I thought it suited her perfectly.

The size, the style, even the way the current owner had decorated it, appealed to her sensibility. The book on the coffee table was the same one she was reading. And there was the wonderfully private and lush garden where she could plant vegetables and turn cartwheels all day long if she wanted (as she had done recently in her current garden, in an effort to teach my 8 year old how to turn cartwheels!).

When we wished her good luck after she put in her bid, she replied, “Oh, there is no question of luck, I am going to get it. I know it. That house and I are made for each other.”

Two days later she found out that she did not get it. Another buyer had outbid her. She was heartbroken. Had she failed? All she had been saving toward, working for, her dreams about living in a space meant just for her, gone.

What does it mean to fail? Should she have thought that she had failed, as most people would and indeed she did for a few days? Or did the Buddha really have something when he said that happiness depends on what you think? The world is full of wise saws and it is easy to ignore them sometimes as the feeling of failure or defeat overwhelms you.

But, she asked herself, what was different? Her life was still the same, it was just the house that was no longer a part of that picture. Indeed the house had never, until recently, been part of the picture. IF she had never chanced upon it, she would not today be feeling so sad, so cheated, so sadly altered.

And what she realized was that the only thing that had changed from the week before was in her head.

The power to be happy is in our heads. So is the power to be sad. The power to feel successful is there as is the power to feel failure.

So she did not succeed in getting her home. Now it was up to her to decide what to think. As she put it, she could say, “It’s all gone now and will never come back. Life sucks!”

Or she could hold on to hope: "I firmly believe that I will soon be living in a beautiful place of my own. I rejoice in imagining myself in that place, It gives me the greatest pleasure to make plans in my head about all the wonderful things I will do there... I have a beautiful dream and a belief that it is out there for me."

She chose the latter approach. This is gratifying for several reasons. First and foremost, I am glad for my friend that she is finding a positive way to approach her disappointment. Second, I am interested in how we all approach problems, obstacles, and perceived failures. I have tracked my evolution in this regard since I was a child. Crushing disappointment is followed by utter despair. Getting knocked down leads to lying winded on the floor. Being told I am not good at something in school makes me feel small and inconsequential.

Then, funny as it sounds, a best seller (among many other things) helps me change the way I look at failure and disappointment. Reading Gone With the Wind in my early teenage years, I saw Scarlett O’Hara not as an unscrupulous, mercenary go-getter who would not let anyone stand in her way but as a determined woman who would not let life get her down.

I was startled and amazed at her chutzpah throughout the novel but it was definitely the ending that left me breathless with admiration. Her world had ‘ended’ and the last person who loved her had finally abandoned her. Yet she could say (and I am paraphrasing here), “I’ll deal with it tomorrow, tomorrow is another day.”

“Wow!” I thought, “That is some kind of woman. That is some kind of optimism.”

Now I couldn’t be more different from Scarlett O’Hara but I do share her optimism. I have woken up nearly every day of my life feeling that it was a beautiful, new day and that good things were going to happen. Even if I had gone to bed unhappy or troubled, by morning I was ready to tackle life again, hope filling my mind and heart.

For this, I have my mother to thank. She taught me never to go to bed angry, to always fall asleep thankful for my blessings, and to live each day as my last. Subconsciously I had learned Scarlett’s lesson about not letting anything get me down. Consciously I learned from my mother because I saw that she lived her life as she taught me to live it, loving what she did, loving the people around her, generously giving of herself, her time, her cooking, with no expectation of anything in return, a smile always on her lips, no matter what pain was in her heart.

I think that a positive attitude can go a very long way in keeping you healthy and sane. It works for me. What some might term failure, I term a challenge. Yes, of course, I am first disappointed by some downward turn of events: an article not getting picked up by a journal I pitched it to; only three students turning up to a cooking class; my publisher delaying the publication of my book for years.

Naturally there is often frustration and irritation during the process of coming to terms with, and then tackling, those obstacles. But there are opportunities too. I choose to focus on those, the proverbial looking on the bright side of things. I can rework the article and pitch it elsewhere. I get more time with my three students and can do a test run of a new class on the smaller group. When the book finally comes out, the sense of relief, elation and excitement are well worth the wait! So the rewards are sweeter for having faced those challenges and disappointments head on rather than letting them derail me.

Finally, I am interested in how mood affects one’s work. As a writer, of course, my mood affects what I write. This I have known every since the angst and melodrama of my teenage years and first loves. As a chef too, I see how my mood can travel from my head and heart to my fingers and from there into whatever I am cooking.

Luckily, because cooking soothes me so much, this transference only rarely has a negative effect. Nine days out of ten, my food tastes good because I cook it with love, dedication and a positive frame of mind (as for that tenth, I guess, everyone is allowed the day off!).

So the Buddha was right. It is not who you are or what you have that creates happiness, it is what you think. And yet one can also twist his words to take on new, positive meaning: If you think positively, you can indeed shape who you are and what you have in the best possible way.