Every list of the things people most fear looks just about the same. On them, you'll find a fear of speaking in public, heights, snakes, spiders. Death, of course. And right alongside them is the fear of failure. Nearly everyone has this particular fear subconsciously baked into them from childhood. It's easy to understand why.
Like most people, I too was taught and instinctively believed that the purpose in life, one of its main directives, was to avoid failure at all costs. And that certain risks simply weren't worth taking if the possibility of failure was too high. This general fear of failure is one I've tried to eliminate from my own life, in part because failure seems to be a natural and unavoidable fact of existence. To fear trying something because you might fail seems almost as neurotic as being afraid of breathing or eating. But it sticks with us nonetheless, and in some cases can be quite debilitating.
The fact is, we all fail. No one is immune from tripping up, getting knocked down, or suffering from the large and small humiliations of slipping down life's ladder. In order to move through existence, we must be prepared to accept and even embrace these inevitable failures. Failures in our work. With friends. Family. In romantic relationships. These failures, by and large, aren't ruinous. We can rebound from them. This may be because, after them, we can still hold on to our sense of identity and piece the rest of our life back together. They're manageable.
A cataclysmic failure, a breakdown that contains within it a breakthrough.
But what I'm writing about today is bigger. A deeper fear of a darker type of failure. A cataclysmic failure, the likes of which changes one's life forever. It almost doesn't make sense to call what I'm talking about here "failure," but instead a total and complete fall from grace. A breakdown that contains within it a breakthrough. Hitting a type of rock bottom so hard, that we can feel the resounding thud deep in our soul. This is a reckoning. A life event so profound that it seems impossible to move past.
This "fall" can be of our own making or through circumstances we're wholly unable to control. Some event, or series of experiences so completely shattering, a fall so long and deep, that everything solid about life seems torn away. We lose ourselves completely in this suffering whether it be self imposed or pure underserved misfortune. The climb out of this sort of hole seems too arduous a task, maybe even impossible. We long for life as it once was, realizing we can never return to that place and also not seeing how we can remain like we are. In a fall of this magnitude, we feel that we have either failed at life, or that life has failed us.
You'll know it when you get there. And if it's already happened, you need no further explanation.
There's a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr who writes eloquently about having the carpet ripped out from under you in this way. It seems inescapable that everyone will eventually be forced to confront themselves from the inside, often through a series of calamities or personal decisions. In his book Falling Upward, Rohr writes about what can be gained from a deep failure and describes how one can recover from something otherwise upsetting, frightening, and seemingly insurmountable.
Rohr describes this fall as entering into a the second half of life, and believes all people are either in the first or second halves of their lives depending on when they cross this threshold. This isn't chronological. He's met very young children he believed to already be in their second half of life (I too have experience with this), and old men who are still in their first. The second half of life begins after the "event" mentioned above, a collision with reality that hurls a person into what seems to be abyss.
In the first half of life, Rohr explains, people are busy constructing "containers" for themselves. This container is our identity. Within it are all of our particular points of view and beliefs, our interests, our tastes, our preferences. We cling to this idea of who we are based on an image of self defined by these perceived absolutes. Contained inside our vessel are signifiers to others about who we believe ourselves to be, and we come to believe it ourselves. We hold tightly to our opinions, mistakenly believing them to be who we are.
In our first halves, we reinforce and advertise this version of who we are to the world and to ourselves. It takes an extraordinary amount of energy and dedication to maintain it and keep it all congruent and held together. It can be a full-time job, just shoring up of this flimsy superficial construction of identity. And all along, deep down inside, we fear that all of this has very little to do with who we really are.
When the "fall" happens, we're forced by tragedy or a failure so deep—smashing into the rock bottom of the chasm in our soul—that our container is shattered and all the parts of who we thought we were show themselves to merely be a thin shell.
Sometimes we begrudgingly abandon this identity, sometimes we abandon it rejoicefully. But being forced through a humbling coming-to-terms encounter with the puzzle of our true inner self will never allow us to reassemble the Humpty Dumpty pieces of our old identity again. We have seen who we are, for better and worse, and this instills humility, compassion, and freedom. The freedom to just be, instead of having to always be "me." The world opens up. There is more clarity and also more confusion. Possibilities that once appeared binary reveal themselves to be infinite. Questions that were once black-and-white now appear prismatic. There is less certainty and more openness. The self remains a magnificent mystery, but it's now finally free to be that mystery fully, no longer squeezed into the container of identity.
As Rohr writes, only those who have failed, fallen, or gone down hard can truly understand up.
Don't be afraid of massive failure. Don't be afraid to fall. The worst ordeal of your life contains within it the potential to make you a better person. Sometimes falling down is actually lifting you into a higher part of yourself. The parts of you that were broken in the fall reveal the real you underneath.
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