The Art of Failure

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It’s nearing Christmas, and 2012 is almost over. It’s a time of reflection — the hours are shorter, the weather is colder, and we turn inward, literally and metaphorically. It’s always been this way in the cycle of the seasons. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) rises as our focus shifts to our inner life, less distracted from our feelings of unhappiness by overstimulation from the world around us.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the course of events in 2012. Some good things have happened (this blog among them), but on the whole it has been a year of things falling apart; a year of watching things fail. A music project that had consumed so much of my life over the past three years ended abruptly in acrimony. I found myself in the hospital with a staph infection that was brought on by my intensely weakened immune system (weakened thanks to poor decisions on my part about taking care of my health). I find myself short of where I want to be financially, unsure where to put my focus. In the wake of these failures, I see myself now scrambling to reconstruct my career, my ideas about myself, and my ideas about what the future holds.


What I want right now is some material success — a magic wand to take away these failures and give me the “happy ending” version of 2012. What I need, however, is to tap into my ability to fail skillfully — otherwise known as “resilience,” or the ability to take failure in stride and bounce back. Resilience is a skill every person with diabetes must develop. After all, how many times over the course of our day, week, month, year, and lifetime do we check our blood? Thousands upon thousands of times. And even if our control is immaculate, some of those will be “bad numbers.” We have to work with failure all the time, and figure out how to let that failure inform us, motivate us, and help us, rather than bring us down.

I know how to do this when it comes to diabetes. I used to struggle with high readings. But over the course of my life, I came to realize that flipping out over them never really helped anything, and actually made things noticeably worse. By flipping out, I lost my head. I couldn’t analyze my reading. I couldn’t learn from it. And by flooding my system with stress hormones, I made it that much harder for my system to restore balance. And so now, when I get that occasional high reading, I’ve learned how to turn off that reactive switch. But I have a harder time turning off that switch in other parts of my life.

From diabetes to life
I’ve always held a firm belief that living with diabetes offers gifts that can help us navigate more skillfully through life. I’ve often called living with diabetes an exercise in “forced practices” — daily routines and practices that we wouldn’t choose, but that we have been given by our condition. The art of failure is one of those practices.

The question, then, is how to take this practice from the world of diabetes to the rest of our lives? That’s certainly my question right now. As I struggle to adjust to a year that gave me a lot of what I didn’t want, I need to translate this forced practice to the parts of my life that really need it — to my career, to music, to my general health, and so on. It’s certainly possible. I’ve often told my therapy clients that if you can remain centered in any situation in your life, that state is available everywhere in your life. It can be harder to get to, but it is available.

If I take my own advice for a second, that means my capacity for resilience is available to me right now, in this moment. And that means at some level I am choosing my feelings of depression. Man, do I hate writing that sentence, but I know it’s true. I am choosing to feel this way. And I am choosing to ignore my own capacity for resilience. But why would I choose to stay depressed? Because it’s easy.

If I choose to stay depressed, I remain a victim. And if I choose to remain a victim, I can choose to remain lazy — if I have no power to change anything, I don’t have to try. That’s the trouble with resilience — it doesn’t let you wallow in self-pity. It demands that you remain centered, assess your own situation, and take action to address what is within your control, and let go of what is not. And that is exactly how I’ve learned to respond when I check my blood gluocse. I respond with sugar or insulin, I assess why my blood glucose was low or high, and I take corrective action in that moment and in the future. When the reading is just a flukey high with no explanation, I let go and move on.

So, fellow Diabetians, since we all know how to do this with remarkable skill in our daily lives, let’s commit to assessing the rest of our lives with wisdom. During this naturally introspective, reflective time of year, remember to apply the lesson of resilience. See what you did well, see what didn’t work; see the success, see the failure; see all of the ups and the downs, and respond like a Diabetian: appreciate the gains, understand the failures, correct what can be corrected, and let go of the baggage. I think I’ll go hit the meditation cushion for another 20 minutes and see if I can’t take some of my own advice. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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