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The Illusions of Failure

BY Bradley Olson December 4, 2022

This month, the concluding month of the year, our MythBlast Series theme is The Heroism of Failure. Perhaps it’s proper to explore this topic at the end of the year because in some sense, endings and failure are, I think, more inextricably linked to heroism than success. Failure tends to stick with us longer, while success is more chimerical, more of a moment that passes relatively quickly when we do manage to achieve it. On the road to heroism, the prospective hero will fail miserably, and more than once. Failure is an inevitable and, I believe, an invaluable feature of living any life, but most especially the heroic life.

When I was a very young, very raw police officer, there was an older officer I looked up to. He grew up in the Bronx, did four tours of duty in Vietnam, liked poetry, movies, and bodybuilding. We became friends, worked out together, and often found ourselves working the nightshift because he—and I, it turned out—loved the energies of darkness. We loved the unpredictability, the excitement, and the flood of adrenaline. Often, when we were reflecting upon situations that had the potential for ending badly, he would say to me, “All the heroes are in cemeteries.” I was never really sure of what, exactly, he meant by that, but I think that because culture commonly sees death as a kind of failure, as an event that shouldn’t have happened, one that is always premature regardless of the deceased’s age, in the final analysis the hero’s death, while heroic, might also be seen as a failure rather than the simple, apt culmination of a life.

In my comrade’s declaration, I eventually came to find echoes of Sophocles who, in Antigone, wrote that “One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been.” Elsewhere the playwright wrote, “There is an ancient saying, famous among men, that thou shouldst not judge fully of a man’s life before he dieth, whether it should be called blest or wretched.” (Trachiniæ, 1) We human beings have a hard time judging or understanding that which is ongoing, unfolding, or underway, and we are only able to begin to understand that which is finished.

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Perhaps that’s why it’s somewhat easier to assess heroism when the hero dies in mid-career. That may have something to do with why, since 1941, more than half of the Medals of Honor awarded by U.S. Presidents (in the name of Congress) have been awarded posthumously.  For those who give their lives for a noble cause, some recognition of heroism is more or less assured, and these heroic dead will do nothing further to tarnish their heroism. Nothing more will be asked of them. They are eternally heroic–and, often, eternally young–making their absence from the world all the more poignant, and further burnishing the golden aura of their heroism. 

But for us–the still living–life goes on, and living is no easy task as one failure is heaped upon another. The great Chinese novelist and Nobel Laureate, Mo Yan, reminds us that “Dying’s easy; it’s living that’s hard. The harder it gets, the stronger the will to live. And the greater the fear of death, the greater the struggle to keep on living.” (Big Breasts and Wide Hips) And, I would add, the greater the struggle to keep on living, the greater our failures become. 

But the fact of failure itself shouldn’t be surprising; in fact the only surprises about failure lie in its breathtakingly innovative variations. Nevertheless, one is left with a sense that in American life failure, or the acknowledgement of it, is somehow shameful or improper. But in truth, failure is simply a negotiation with our human-all-too-human limitations, it is the inaequalis magister vitae, life’s unequaled teacher, and for that reason is, I believe, a nearly ubiquitous presence in myth. Every success is itself a form of failure, writes Joyce Carol Oates in her marvelous essay, Notes on Failure. There is always a compromise between what is desired and what is attained: 

…after all, there is the example of William Faulkner who considered himself a failed poet; Henry James returning to prose fiction after the conspicuous failure of his playwriting career; Ring Lardner writing his impeccable American prose because he despaired of writing sentimental popular songs; Hans Christian Andersen perfecting his fairy tales since he was clearly a failure in other genres–poetry, playwriting, life. One has only to glance at Chamber Music to see why James Joyce specialized in prose.

I, at least, have to wonder if the hero isn’t also unconsciously in love with failure. There is something all too final about “success,” something finite which is relegated to the lifelessness of history. Success really only lives in the past, while failure and its moments of vitalization are always with us. The risks one takes in facing the dangers of living–of following one’s bliss–gives one the sensation of being jaw-droppingly alive.  What else might explain the hero’s penchant for that which exists amid danger, mystery, and intoxicating adrenaline? Why is the hero drawn to extremes? It can only be exhilaration, the frisson of living life as though death itself was of no consequence. It’s the exhilaration one feels from living as though life was a game, or as if one were an actor in a play.

Certainly, nothing about life and living is easy, not even games–if they are to continue to engage and entice us. If they were easy, we would quickly tire of them. If one understands that Life is a game that demands perseverance, practice, and the ability to understand death as the apotheosis of life rather than its interruption, one may feel much more unfettered, much less burdened by living. The problem of life is not death, but rather what we believe death to be. Culturally, we’ve decided that death is bad, that death is something abnormal, an anomaly of living, instead of recognizing it as an important developmental milepost that, like any other developmental marker, must be achieved (both C.G. Jung and Sigmund Freud noted that death is as important to human beings as birth). 

Engaging life as a game captures what Joseph Campbell called the “aristocratic spirit,” an attitude from which one lives life on life’s own terms and engages life nobly, honestly, and courageously–as play. And there is only one way to play a game, as the catcher, Crash Davis, said in the movie Bull Durham: “You be arrogant, even when you’re getting beat. That’s the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.” 

Living this way fear and arrogance cancel each other out, ultimately leaving one with only the serene acceptance of one’s fate–Amor Fati–which is exactly the attitude of the hero unconsciously in love with failure. And of course, it must be love since failure is such a large part of life, and as Joseph Campbell wrote, “Love, for [the hero] is absolute, singlefold, and for life.” (Flight of the Wild Gander: Selected Essays 1944-1968, 181) Love always and in all ways is for life, for all of it, in its every manifestation. Even when it manifests in failure.

Thanks for reading,

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

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