|The Failure of Success
The world is full of proverbial statements on the subject of learning from our mistakes. Things like, "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger," and "no pain, no gain," come to mind. But the real truth is that failure is as much a part of our human creative process as is success. The great sum of human knowledge and achievement is the result of countless failures. Every success stands on a mountain of failed attempts. No great invention ever popped into existence without trial and error. No great work of art or literature ever happened without the artist or the writer testing, learning, growing, and yes, failing.
This awareness of the symbiotic relationship between success and failure is obviously common knowledge. We learn about it as children. We experience it in everything from learning to walk and talk, to developing relationship skills. So why is it, I wonder, that weboth ourselves and our cultureare so quick to criticize and condemn others for failing? Could it be that in this age of instant communication we simply don't allow ourselves the time to process what is working and what is not? Do we think only of what works now, for us, in this moment, and forget about the big picture? And, for that matter, how exactly does our society define what is a success and what is a failure?
If we listen to the advertising agencies, success is measured in big cars, big houses, big breasts, big hair, and the possibility of big erections lasting for more than four hours. If we watch much television we are bombarded with a reality TV mentality that boldly proclaims that there is only one winner. All too often, if we don't win big, if we come in second place, if we don't win awards, if we don't have hit records, or write best sellers we are counted among the failuresor at least that is the message that sometimes seems to permeate our lives.
Most of us, I thinkmaybe I should say, I hopelive our lives able to balance the incongruities and contradictions that seem to exist between what our culture tells us we are supposed to be and who we know we really are. We understand life exists on a number of different levels and quite often, that which is one thing according to society is the exact opposite when viewed from the perspective of the heart. So how do we, in this crazy upside down kind of world, decide what is failure and what is success? And how do we find the time in our increasingly busy world to decipher what that means to each one of us?
This time of year is always busy for me because, in addition to all the work of CAMP Rehoboth (which, don't get me wrong, I love!), there is the added pressure of trying to finish my annual art show (which I also love). Anyway, not long ago I had a really busy day in the studio. I was working on several paintings at once and at the end of the day I realized I had finished two pieces and ruined two others by overworking them. Both heartened by the success and saddened by the failure, I put all the paintings aside, allowing them time to rest before taking any final action. Over the next few weeks, even as I continued to finish other paintings, I kept getting out the two I considered failures, and working them up and then working them down again. Finally I got to a point where I felt satisfied that I could show the two pieces. Those two "failures" ended up teaching me some things that are changing the way I had intended to paint my entire show. Without them I would never have figured out some new techniques that are already playing a big part in the remainder of the workincluding the one that will be the 2005 Sundance painting. What happens to those two paintings in the future I have no way of knowing. Whether anyone else likes them or not, whether they sell or not, will never be as important as the lessons I learned from them.
Think about the whole GLBT rights issues for a moment. Everyday there are failures, everyday there are successes. The whole subject is right in the middle of the big, messy culture wars that are being waged in every religion, culture and society in the world. Of course, the successes and the failures are subjective, dependent upon what side we find ourselves uponhow we categorize ourselvesgay, straight, Christian, Muslim, Jew, young, old, dark skinned, light skinned, male, female, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative...the list is endless. One person's success is another's failure simply because of who we are. And yet, until we as a human body can reach a point where we honor one another for our differencesand celebrate our failures for what we learn from themnone of us will reach our full potential as creative human beings.
Not long ago I was at a party and someone I hadn't seen in a while commented that CAMP Rehoboth was doing very well, and that we must have done things the right way. I was glad he felt that way, but in thinking back over the last 15 years, I know that they were full of both successes and failures, and that sometimes what we thought to be a success was ultimately a failure, and vice versa. Our real success comes because we just keep going, through good days and bad ones, and because we keep trying to do our bestwhatever that means to us at any given time.
Perhaps one of the best lessons we can learn in life is to not be afraid of success or failure for they are both simply a part of the creative process.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 4 May 6, 2005