April 20, 2015: The Value of Despair
Every day is an opportunity – an opportunity to achieve and an opportunity to fail. Most people don’t consciously choose failure. They simply allow the possibility of failure to creep in unannounced. Once the idea of failure gets a toe-hold, it’s almost impossible to dislodge. Failure is a lot like mold on cheese. What you see on the surface is only a small portion of what actually exists. The mold bores into the cheese sinking in its roots. You can scrape off the mold that you see on the surface of the cheese, but the root structure will remain. In the case of some cheeses, that mold gives the cheese its flavor. It makes the cheese what it is. In other cases, the cheese is ruined and must be disposed of.
Failure can have a similar effect on people. It can make you who you are. It can give you “flavor”. Too much failure or the wrong kind of failure, just like mold with cheese, can ruin a person.
I’ve known my share of failures. They’ve flavored my life – made me who I am, taught me lessons and many times helped me become a better person. A man who has never known failure cannot be trusted.
But, I believe I have crossed a line. It was there, somewhere in the darkness of this apocalyptic crash. I don’t remember tripping over it. I can’t recall seeing it. I’ve crossed it, nonetheless. That line, that imperceptible line, was the line that had previously separated me from the idea of failure – not from failure itself but from the thought of it.
Never before in my life have I entered a venture, no matter how large or how small, with the idea in my mind that I might fail. Some might call that a weakness; others a blindness. Perhaps it was. If it was a blindness, it was an impediment that aided me in many ways. No matter the situation, my mind was always at work … always looking for a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Until it was over, I never considered myself beaten.
Never before have I begun a day thinking to myself that the day could end in failure.
I’m in uncharted territory. I cannot yet fathom what this may mean. I sit here and push a pencil across a page hoping that the words will bring to mind some secret passageway, some talisman of my old self – the self who never considered failure an option.
Am I the wrong man for the job? Is there a better leader among us – one who could unerringly move us ahead without a glimmer of a doubt in their mind? No name comes to mind. Each of the members of the community has, at one point or another, expressed to me their harbored fears. What we face is so … unfamiliar – although that word lacks the necessary heft to convey the gravity of the situation. What lies ahead is so utterly without precedent, so vastly unknown and un-knowable ….
I am fulfilling my own prophesy. Not only am I entertaining thoughts of failure, I’m coming up with reasons to give the thoughts greater purchase in my mind.
My strength has always been as the only slightly-guided missile. Point me in a direction. Give me target and I will find a way to achieve the goal. My best days were as a number two, not as the one in charge, as an adviser not as the CEO.
Has my time come? With this mantle of responsibility thrust upon me am I finally to find the mettle of which I am made?
What was it that the handwriting on the wall said in Daniel? Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin. Your days are numbered. You have been weighed and found wanting. Your kingdom is to be divided.
I have no such handwriting on the wall. I have only weighed myself in my own estimation and found myself wanting. Our demise can only come through our own weakness. We have no knowledge of a God-ordained cataclysm. We survived the initial apocalyptic event. We must now find out way forward to begin life again.
For my own part, I must banish the thought of failure from my mind. Each of us must fight that battle. Everyone must reach down deep inside of their soul and find the stuff they’re made of. We must find the core values that bind us together. Only through reliance upon our Maker and upon each other can we face what we do not know.
What, then, are these values? What do we live for? What are we willing to die for?
We value life – our own as well as the lives of others. But what of the lives of others that put our own in jeopardy? Where does the balance lie? Human life is sacred but one also has the inalienable right to defend one’s own life and the lives of one’s family and friends. Yet, many times throughout history, one or a few have willingly laid down their lives for the greater good. Are we called to do this?
We value liberty and freedom. Like it or not, we were slaves of our government and the global economic system. Some more than others, to be sure, but we were all slaves. We willingly chained ourselves to leaders who did not have our best interests at heart. Actively, or through our inaction, we gave these individuals the position of overlord. That must not happen again.
Is it as simple as that? Life and liberty? The first two components of the trinity of unalienable rights? I’m not sure we’re ready yet for the pursuit of happiness.
This will be my proposal then: That we bind ourselves together as a community in the pursuit of life (survival). That preservation of life – first our own and then that of our fellow-man – will be of primary importance. That we will, in our pursuit of life, hold above all else liberty – individuals’ ability to govern themselves – as our guiding principle.
Cue the patriotic music and the flag gently flapping in the breeze.
I realize that these principles are high-minded and, apparently, of little practical use on any given day, but without the light of guidance we will stray. We will fail. With agreement on our guiding principles, we can succeed.
Moldy cheese, anyone?
Let us not trivialize the phrase “pursuit of happiness”. It means so much more than sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The “pursuit of happiness” was an adaptation from the philosopher John Locke’s treatise of natural rights which included “life, liberty, and property.” Some state constitutions, such as North Carolina’s, includes in their preamble the phrase “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruit of one’s own labor [property].”
In a 1690 essay Locke did mention “the necessity of pursuing happiness, the foundation of liberty.” Happiness, Locke thought, could be obtained only through the twin paths of desire and reason, which must balance one another.
When writing the Declaration of independence, Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase, but it then effectively meant the responsible care for one’s own affairs, conducted in such a way as to provide the maximum benefit of health, material well-being, and the common good of one’s family and community. It was understood that if a man had these conditions, he would be “happy.”
It seems to me that Dave Johnson and the UC folk are doing the best they can in pursuit of happiness. How precious it is!