A Few Personal Truths About Failure

I have failed at many things in my life — by which I mean I have suffered many outcomes which in their times, provisionally, within the horizons visible to me at those moments, appeared as failures to me, and probably would have appeared so to any sympathetic outside observer as well. I have learned through experience that what we term our “failures,” within such provisional, temporally-defined horizons, are often Life’s essential deflections or corrections, although they naturally never appear so at the outset — and indeed they must not appear so. For it is indispensable to any hardship’s effectiveness as a deflection or correction that it actually be experienced as a hardship, which is to say that it be a source of genuine suffering. Perfect equanimity through life — the inability or carefully practiced refusal to experience the full effects of (provisional, contextual) disappointment, rejection, loss, or self-reproach as such — would merely bespeak an unwillingness to approach one’s life and choices as though one cared one way or the other about the results. This is the problem I perceive at the heart of stoicism. The stoic is trying to evade or minimize suffering altogether, which means to deny the contextual nature of his own experience, thereby nullifying or evading the necessary redemption of (fully experienced) hardships in the form of what I am calling “deflections or corrections.”

In other words, stoicism is a philosophy that, if adhered to consistently, actually stunts the emotional and intellectual growth that Nietzsche calls “self-overcoming,” by dulling the very points of Life that should be felt in their full, painful sharpness if they are to provide the necessary conditions for the kind of reflection and reinterpretation that make such growth possible. For what must be redeemed or overcome is not any objective fact or event, which is neither here nor there in itself, but precisely the contextual, personal condition occasioned by the “objective fact or event.”

One implication of this conclusion is that the truly pitiable person, in the long run, is not he who has experienced trials and failures (I mean experienced them as life-diminishing stabs), but rather he who has “had all the luck,” the person for whom life appears to be a series of successes and advantages — since success and advantage, too, must usually be defined provisionally, within a given moment.

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