Understanding success and failure is not simple. Each looks different for different people. Everyone knows what they want. Think about what you want in life. What is it? What does it look like for you?
Some people want security in the form of money and power. Some want the social status of having many friends and people who respect them. Others want a family; they want to have many children and care for them as they grow up. Still others want a variety of experiences; they want to travel, understand diverse cultures, and learn new things. Lots of people want it all.
The need for Meaning
On the deepest level, everyone needs to live a meaningful life. Understanding success and failure means knowing how to create meaning.
Living is full of pleasure. Think about being with friends and family to celebrate a holiday with a big, delicious meal. When you arrive, you see loved ones that you have missed for so long. You all hug each other and tell stories about all of the events that are happening in your lives. How the children have grown and changed! They are talking more and developing new skills every day. Their confidence has increased and they seem more alive. Everyone sit down together to a feast in a warm home. The food tastes incredible, and you feel satiated. The elders at the table are wiser and give better advice. They offer it more freely and we find out later that it works out very well for us. What could be better than this?
But life is also full of suffering. We get tired, hungry, frustrated, angry, and depressed. Our friends and family are hurtful and betray us. The people we love experience hardship; they get sick and die. We remember a decade and can’t believe we wasted so much time on something so unimportant. Our suffering can be physical, mental, or spiritual. It harms us and often leads to more suffering.
Sacrifice vs. Suffering
Our instincts are designed for us to survive, which means we are inclined to fear death. In fact, every fear we have is related to only two potential future outcomes: death and suffering. So the sum of all fears for human beings is to suffer through life and die, having lived without any meaning at all.
Some suffering is avoidable. We may face difficult challenges and we do best when we separate necessary pain from arbitrary pain. So our inclination to avoid unnecessary suffering is both useful and valid. But if we are to overcome barriers and take the necessary difficult steps toward achievement, we often must postpone gratification and experience short-term adversity. We need to know that our suffering has created something good for our future self or for someone else.
Each new thing we learn opens the world up to us.
In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he discusses his experience surviving in a concentration camp and continuing to have a life afterward.
Story of Sacrifice
My daughter, Isla, has a genetic condition that has made her life very difficult. Because of it, she has developmental delays and limitations that other children do not. It has also caused her to have a life-threatening form of epilepsy.
One morning, when she was three years old, I woke up later than usual. She wasn’t awake yet. I thought that was strange, so I opened the door to her room. She was lying in bed with her eyes half open. Her lips were blue and she wasn’t breathing. I panicked and yelled for my wife, Noelle, to call 9-1-1. I picked my daughter up and blew air into her mouth, and begged frantically for the seizure to stop.
An ambulance came and she was rushed to the hospital. She had many more seizures in a row and was left in critical condition on a ventilator. My wife and I were asked to leave the room and wait in the hallway. When the nurses and doctors entered or left the room, they would not look at us. We knew our daughter might die. The depth and severity of the fear and despair we felt is impossible to describe. I never would have been able to imagine it before then and I have not been the same ever since.
She recovered, although the brain damage that it caused meant that she would have even more severe limitations and continue to have life-threatening seizures. For many years, we would sing songs with her, teach her the alphabet, and try to get her to hold a crayon, open a bottle, and be able to run, only to have these skills disappear with every new seizure. Each time she had a seizure, she stopped breathing and Noelle and I were reminded again that we might lose her.
I became severely depressed and distanced myself emotionally from my wife and children. The tyranny of powerlessness over whether she lives or dies was more than I could bear. I became disciplined, controlling, neurotic, superstitious, and incapacitated by anxiety. In understanding success and failure, I had to figure out how my suffering was necessary. In some cases, it was. I would spend hours awake sometimes, listening to my daughter’s breathing. Some amount of that time was important to protect her, but not all of it. Proper sacrifice means suffering the necessary amount to accomplish your goal. I was suffering unnecessarily because some of it was not going to help me achieve greater safety or a better life for my daughter. Suffering unnecessarily is part of failure.
There may be a day when she has a seizure that I cannot stop or that I sleep through, and she may die. The outcome of her development is not guaranteed. What’s worse is that it’s also not entirely proportional to the effort or the effectiveness of the therapeutic method we use to help her.
I can only make it slightly more likely that she is healthy, so I do. Our relationship can only be improved by my letting go of her permanence with our family in this life and embracing the moments that she is still alive and able have meaningful interactions with us. The tenderness necessary to love a child fully is only possible when we have accepted our powerlessness and our own impermanence. When we still fear, we will harden our hearts. We will not love openly, but will build walls around our hearts to protect ourselves from suffering. I learned that I must tie my boat to hers and fate myself to sink with her if she does. Only then can I give love freely and save us both from meaninglessness in our relationship.
Meaningful suffering, meaningful life: When I put Isla to bed and she says, “I love you, Dad!”
Now you should have a better understanding of success and failure.