Mark Edmundson, who teaches literature at the University of Virginia, has written a marvelous book of essays on education titled, Why Teach?
One of the chapters, Glorious Failure, is based on a speech he gave to students at the university. The man who introduced Mr. Edmundson mentioned his accomplishments, degrees, books, awards, etc. His resume.
Edmundson stood to speak and said he appreciated the introduction, but it reminded him of something he called his ghost resume. “And what’s on my ghost resume are all the things that went awry, the essays that didn’t work, the book projects that fell apart.”
Then Edmundson said:
“I’m proud of those failures because they made possible what success I was able to achieve. I surprised myself occasionally and that felt pretty good.”
“Yeats said, ‘That which fascinates is the most difficult among things not impossible.’ And I’ve always wanted to be fascinated by what I’m doing, and that means I’ve done difficult things. Or at least things that have been difficult for me. If you do difficult things, take on truly challenging ventures, you will at least occasionally fail. But you’ll be fascinated too. You’ll be awake.”
Nothing really new there, of course. But there are three reminders I especially like.
First, we need our ghost resume. It’s hopeful to know we can make use of our failures and setbacks. These things don’t disqualify us, they educate us.
Second, one of the values of trying difficult things and taking on difficult challenges is that it keeps life more fascinating. It keeps us awake! And we can get that benefit even if we fail!
Third, as a human being, you have the delightful ability to surprise yourself once in a while. And when you do, you’ll probably surprise those around you!
Picture this: Imagine a day when you surprise everyone with your aliveness, your wisdom, your generosity of spirit, or your level-headed grace under pressure.
One of these days…
Guest Post by Landon Saunders
As I sit here this morning, I’m thinking of the days that make up our lives, how precious each day is. Life presents us with so many variations—choices, distractions, detours, false promises, dead ends. Is there any light to help us make the most of our days, any light to guide us toward ever greater fulfillment?
Sam Maloof, one of the greatest wood craftsmen of the twentieth century, winner of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, was asked for the secret of his genius. He replied that he tried to be a good man, a good neighbor, good to his family. When pressed further, he finally said, “I aim myself true.”
I’ve remembered his line for years; it became an aphorism for my own life—I aim myself true.
Trueness suggests value, worth. Aiming yourself true means you’re worth going on, becoming better—better in relationships, better in attitude, better at life itself.
Aiming yourself true pulls together your different parts. It speaks to the problem of fragmentation, restores you when you go to pieces. It helps you not to tarry too long over a bump in the road, any failure or setback.
Aiming yourself true acknowledges your unique place, you’re a one and only. No one has ever occupied your space and no one else ever will. Your aim is to be true to who you are.
Aiming yourself true means digging ever deeper into your own life to mine the treasures hidden there. You always have untapped riches you can unearth for new challenges. That’s the nature of your own true life.
And aiming yourself true is a rich goal when you’re young, when you’re in your thirties and forties, and when you reach those upper age milestones. Every age calls for trueness. I love it when I hear of one in their nineties still striving to aim themselves true.
Maybe you’ll want to make this an aphorism of your own life. “Aim yourself true.” It will have great pay-off.
The older gentleman was talking about a time in his life when he had a lot of conflict.
“I always had to be right,” he said. “So I had a lot of problems. Then I learned about the importance of humility. I began to notice that when I remembered to stay humble, most of my problems went away.” He chuckled. “It began to dawn on me that I was the problem.”
I could relate. I remember when it began to hit me that I was the source of many (if not most) of the problems in my life! At first, that was depressing. But the more I thought about it—the more freeing it was.
It frees me to accept myself and others “as is”—without playing games or pretending.
It frees me from the burden of always having to be right. I can just try to bring my genuine self, and that’s enough. It frees me to be able to say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m wrong,” or “I’m sorry”—and realize that that’s not weakness. It’s powerful.
It is freeing to think that if I am the main problem in my life, then I can do something about that! Maybe I can’t change situations or other people—but I can change myself. (In fact, our ability to change is one of the great things about being a human being.)
And when I change, my life changes. So, yes, humility is powerful.
Unfortunately, it’s not such a popular word in America today. Maybe it has to do with our orientation to success, to being aggressive, to winning.
Or maybe it’s because we’ve witnessed a fake humility that is not so empowering or attractive. As Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said to a colleague, “Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.”
So what is real humility?
I have a friend who uses the word, “humbition”—a combination of humility and ambition. I can be humble knowing that I am just human like everyone else on earth. But I can be ambitious for the same reason, because I am a human being, “a child of the universe; no less than the trees and the stars, [I] have a right to be here.”
This reminds me that the word “humility” comes from the same root word for “human” and “humor”, suggesting a definition for humility: the ability to laugh at one’s self.
I can tell you this from personal experience: one of the advantages of growing older is you have a lot more reasons to laugh at yourself!
Guest Post by Landon Saunders
Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “My world that flourishes carries my worlds that have failed.”
Whenever I’m feeling discouraged about where I am in my life, these words give me comfort. They remind me of one of the great paradoxes of life: the deep connection between flourishing and failure.
I like to think of it like a ladder. The ladder is a beautiful symbol of the connection between where we are and where we could be. For that ladder to be secure, it must be firmly planted in the truth of our lives—a truth that is full of both successes and failures.
It is a surprising paradox that only by reaching down into “our worlds that have failed” are we able to find our “world that flourishes.” It is only when we bring our outer circumstances, challenges, and problems together with our deep inner perspective and resources that we’ll find our way up that ladder.
I don’t know about you, but today I find it very encouraging that the ladder to the life we most want is built on the very things we think are blocking our way.
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Today’s post is a little different. It comes from one of my favorite novels, Zora Neal Hurston’s classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. Hurston broke new ground using local African-American dialects to tell the haunting story of Janie Crawford.
In the first chapter, Janie returns to her home town after being gone a while. Her friend Pheoby tells her that everyone in town wants to know what she’s been up to. Among other things, Janie says:
“Ah been a delegate to de big ‘ssociation of life. Yessuh! De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin’ is just were Ah been dis year and a half ya’ll aint seen me.”
Janie proceeds to tell her story—a story with much joy and also some tragedy; at the end, here is Pheoby’s reaction:
“Lawd!” Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from just listenin’ tu you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’.”
“It’s a known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there to know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
I like that perspective: the only person who can finally find out about living my life is me.
And on days when the constant hum-drum of life threatens to drum out the sense of wonder and aliveness, it’s good to remember that I am (as we all are) a delegate to the “big ‘ssociation of life…de big convention of livin’.”
Just thinking about that helps me stand a little straighter and makes me look around at the day a little harder.
Guest post by Landon Saunders
Two things are helpful for me to know about myself: I can do harm, and I can help.
This awareness enables me to form two practical goals for every day. To state those goals, I must warn you that I have to use two four-letter words!
The first daily goal: I will endeavor not to hurt anyone (the first four-letter word). The second daily goal: I will seek to help someone (the second four-letter word).
As we think about these two goals, it is helpful to remember that each person we meet is a unique combination of gifts and wounds. Hurting adds to the wounds. Helping enhances the gifts. As we think about these two goals, it is helpful to remember that each person we meet is a unique combination of gifts and wounds. Hurting adds to the wounds. Helping enhances the gifts.
I’m constantly amazed to note that how I feel about myself is so intricately connected to how I see others, to how I treat others. The enormous value of what we call “social capital” is on display here.
Life is complicated. We know that from personal experience. Those complications are the reason for our affection for some of those other four-letter words. In respectable print we refer to these only with the first letter followed by three dashes. We all have moments when only a choice four-letter word seems sufficient. I get that!
I’m just suggesting two four-letter words that can be fully spelled out that, instead of satisfying some urgent need to get something off our chests, will add something immeasurable to the treasure of our lives.
Try not to hurt. Look for ways to help.
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I like these words from Thomas Merton:
“We do not exist for ourselves (as the center of the universe), and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others.”
Loving yourself is not selfish, Merton says. Not if we really understand it. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Loving yourself properly sets you free from the lonely cage of a self-absorbed life. And it does this by moving in three directions: Gratitude, Goodness, and Giving.
It’s fun to think about these three as ways of loving yourself.
First, to love yourself is to be grateful you’re still here! So you might get up in the morning and go see if you can still fog a mirror. Then, (assuming you can), use your finger to write “Surprise!” on the mirror!
As Heschel said, “Being human is a surprise!”
Second, to love yourself is to see and appreciate the innate goodness of life each day—even though there may be pain and disappointment. As someone has said, it’s not enough to love life, you must love your particular life. Each day is a chance to savor the goodness of life, even in small things.
And third, to love yourself is to give yourself fully to your life—remembering that the quality of your presence may be one of the best gifts you give to the people in your life.
Life is confusing and complicated. So if I’m going to love myself properly, it will help to have a strategy.
I’m willing to bet that Merton is right: following gratitude, goodness and giving will help us keep moving toward love of life, love of self and love of others.
Guest post by Landon Saunders
I’m having a bit of fun thinking about my destiny.
Yes, I’m getting older, and, yes, I’ve given some thought to how I want this thing I call “my life” to end. And, in the words I’ve just written are found two of my favorite words—“fun” and “yes”—two words we sure want to keep in this discussion.
The “destiny” I’m thinking of is not any destiny after this life but your final destiny in this life; that is, how you end up in the here and now.
I think this is the way I’d like to put this: we find our destiny in the fulfillment of our lives.
But the “catch” comes when you ask what that means.
Let’s make this fun. Fulfillment is not about how many years you live but how you live in the years you have. I’m going to skip all the ways we put in our time, even all the dreams we may have. I want to go straight to how you feel about your life, how you would most like to feel at the end.
Joy is fun for me to think about. Oh no, you say, another generality. Just remember, the only ones who say that are the ones who haven’t tried it. I’ve tried it. Daily. Joy has rescued me from the worst things I’ve ever experienced. From failure, sickness, loss, despair, meaninglessness—yes, from all of these I was determined to find my place in joy. That’s why I’m an incurable advocate of joy.
Love is fun for me to think about as well. It’s a good one if you can pull it off. But there’s one little two-letter word that is the greatest enemy of love—the word if. I’ll love you…if. That’s a non-growth approach to a loving life. Love if never fulfills a life. You begin to find love and growth when you let go of the if.
Could I venture one more? If you’re really serious about fulfilling your life, add the word peace. Peace may be the most under-rated of all human endeavors. Try working on making peace for one whole day and you’ll see why. Making peace requires bringing the full array of your strengths to bear on your life. Few things will make you grow a bigger and bigger life than the pursuit of peace.
So, have fun! Find the YES in your life as you choose joy, love, and peace as the surest path to the fulfillment of your life. You won’t be disappointed on your last day.
A difficult time like ours is a good time to think about how to handle “the difficult.” The German poet, Rainer Rilke, had a wonderful thought on this.
Just over a hundred years ago, Rilke exchanged some letters with an aspiring young poet. Eventually, the letters were collected and published under the title, Letters To A Young Poet. In one of the letters, Rilke wrote:
“What is required of us is that we learn to love the difficult and embrace it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.”
Now, at first, this might seem a bit naïve or preposterous. Love difficulties? Love setbacks? Love failures? Come on, get real!
But the truth is, we’ve all had experience with this “love the difficult” strategy—as little children. In fact, it helped get us ready for life.
If you’ve ever watched a toddler learning to walk, they walk, fall down, walk, fall down, walk, fall down—dozens or hundreds of times. But they never get down on themselves.
You never see a toddler sit down, discouraged, and say, “What is wrong with me? Why do I keep falling? I’ll never learn to walk!”
No, they are excited, exuberant. Their eyes are bright. The challenge invigorates them. Sometimes, they even laugh at themselves when they fall.
The founder of AA has written that we need to handle our failures in a way that “kicks us upstairs rather than downstairs.” In other words, Rilke is right: there are “friendly forces” in our failures and difficulties that can enhance our life.
I believe that bringing the exuberant heart of the child to our failures and difficulties—and even mixing in a little humor—helps to keep us in touch with those friendly forces.