Grateful for the restlessness
Storms were on my mind a lot growing up in the midwest. Spring and summer brought regular thunderstorms. One Saturday every month, the tornado warning siren was tested. Then, winter arrived with heavy snowfalls, strong winds, and the annual ice storm that would knock out power for days.
Since then, I've had three memorable encounters with the amazing power of storms.
First, on a trip to Colorado, we were returning from a hike. A storm gathered nearby, close enough that we were walking quickly toward our cabin, but with only a light rain to show for it so far.
Then, there was lightning strike so incredibly close I still get chills thinking about the sound and site of electricity buzzing through the air. It sounded like a cartoon. Immediately after the strike was the loudest crack of thunder I've ever heard. I had no idea how distant my previous encounters with thunder and lightning had been.
Second, we were preparing to spend the final night in our house in Dallas before moving to Austin. A storm began to brew, then the tornado siren sounded, the power went out, and we found ourselves sitting in my son's empty closet as the worst storm of the thirteen years we had lived there blew through (though there was a time when we saw a neighbor's kiddy pool hovering near their 2nd story window as if poised to escape). We woke to trees snapped in half on our street and shaky video of a tornado that had passed about four miles away. We were able to confirm our house hadn't been damaged just an hour before we went to sign the closing papers.
Finally, on a vacation in Maine, we stayed in an old farmhouse in a small town. On our last night, a huge summer storm arrived. The unfamiliar sounds of the house heightened our sense of uncertainty as we sat in a tiny, wooden staircase, curious how much the walls and roof could withstand.
We found a story online about the storm the next morning. It described how a tornado had passed through the town, knocking out power and trees, and blocking roads. The story mentioned a specific intersection that sounded familiar. Indeed, it was where we turned each day to reach the house, exactly one mile away. Apparently we experienced 50% of Maine's tornadoes that year. The state averages just two.
I think one reason storms are so captivating is that we've become very good at controlling every aspect of our environment. We make our workspaces, autos, living rooms, and phones exactly how we want them. Then suddenly, this force steps into the picture with enormous, unpredictable power, completely outside of our control. The people I know who love storms often embrace that unpredictability in other areas, too. I'm still learning myself, but I am starting to enjoy the lessons now and then.
Last week’s dispatch asked, Is there a failure you're grateful for?
I’m 26. I got married at 22. I got divorced at 25. I was in love, and just a couple of months of mistakes and lies sent us into a whirlwind of hate and depression. I had a future with this man, but we let our own selfishness and pride null the happiest years of our lives. But you asked about a failure I am grateful for… I have to be grateful of the lesson that I’ve learned. I know what true regret feels like, and I’m a better person for it. I know that divorce will forever be the biggest failure of my life because I won’t let myself give up on anyone like that again.
In second year of university, I ran for a student leadership position. I was taking a full-engineering course load, working at the student newspaper as a photographer (had to take a leave of absence during my campaign), the undergraduate yearbook, and a few other side projects. I lost the race, had a mental breakdown at the end of it all, and considered becoming a couch potato in the family basement. I'm really glad I lost though, in hindsight, because it made certain things apparent and all the adventures which have followed since wouldn't have happened otherwise. Pivotal (and painful) moment. But I try and recall that caterpillars need to struggle out of the cocoon themselves before the wings sprout.
For a long time, I carried the weight of a book collaboration that didn't work out this past year as a personal failure. We wanted to write about the same topic, but we never got our approaches to align. I finally became grateful for that failure when I realized how much that experience taught me about what I value and how I define my role as a writer. I'm thankful for the opportunity to develop my own voice.
Every romantic relationship that I've had in my life that has failed I'm grateful for, because else wise, I wouldn't be with my amazing wife. Also, I'm quite happy that I failed as a music major after two years and switched to linguistics: It paved the way for me teach myself programming, which I find immensely satisfying and fulfilling to me today. The thing about failing, I think, is that it isn't actually... a thing. You fail at something only when you stop trying to succeed at it. Sometimes, quitting something (read: failing at something) is the exact right thing to do. And sometimes, when it looks like you're failing, you should pick up and try again; success is just over the next hill.
I played soccer for my high school freshman year. Come sophomore year, however, I was cut from the team, devastatingly so. Soccer had been my sport - how was I supposed to do with it? Many of my friends were still on the team, too. My mother's method of cheering me up was to suggest joining my school's choir. I had always liked singing, but had never done it in any official form. Best decision of my life. That year was the start of my transition from an athlete to a nerd. I had always been a good student in school and interested in nerdy things, but only with the removal of soccer from my life was that nerdiness able to blossom. Now, six years later, I play D&D on the weekends and love the life of learning and geekery I live. Getting cut from the soccer team not only led me to the nerdy life; it gives me an appreciation for sports and being part of a team or community working towards a single goal (something many of my non-athletic friends do not have).
Some years back I quit grad school, giving up on my dream of getting a PhD after four years of work. At the time, all I knew was that I couldn't keep going: I had been miserable for at least two of those years, and my thesis project had also been stalled for most of that time. But I also couldn't imagine spending my life doing anything else. Even though it was my choice to leave, it felt like utter failure. Shortly afterward, I found my way into a new career which is more rewarding, more personally fulfilling, and much more fun. I became much happier, got married, and moved to a much more fun town. In retrospect, it was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and I'm grateful that I was able to make that change. But it still may have been the single hardest decision I ever made, and every once in a while I still wonder where I'd be if I had made the other choice.
A failure I'm grateful for: not getting a graduate job at a professional services company after getting through every stage except the final interview. It led me to question the career conveyor belt we all seemed to be on as soon to be graduates. I ended up stopping my job search until I had finished studying and found my way into a small tech startup where I spent 3 variety filled years doing every job in the company.
Life is, I think, a string of failures; that sounds horribly negative, but it's a matter of perspective. According to the esoteric theories of quantum physics, there are infinite universes in which all actions, all inactions, are occurring or not occurring; where every second spins off another vector of being in which you did, didn't, or weren't there to "think" or "do" or "choose". Strictly speaking, every possible choice is a failure, "Failed by choosing" and "Failed to choose" are both failures. The entire context of "failure" has, over time, been lifted from humble logic to portentous meaning. Most times, however, it simply means "that which is not". I am grateful for much that which is not. I am particularly grateful for the manner in which all that which is not has affected, directed, shaped, and shifted my perspective and being to make me this person, sitting here, right now, typing on this keyboard. There is a keen awareness that even one, most seemingly meaningless moment in the past could have, would have profoundly changed this me, as I know me, the world, and life in this moment.<br><br>I am grateful to the bumps, bruises, and brutalities in my history in the same way I am grateful to the others who cared (or didn't). I am filled with saudade for all the failures I did not know or will never know; the limited perspective of a human, no matter how tirelessly stretched, cannot know what it does not know. I am grateful for this failure as well, because knowing of something that one deems "better" and knowing it cannot be is far more painful that the sweet sting of saudade. It wasn't always this way, of course; the slow realization of the fullness and favor of this life's many failures took time to unfold. The understanding that even my successes are failures, literally, since I cannot be/do everything at once, was a particularly beautiful trove of discovery. The liberation of transmuting failure and transcending the culturally popular thorns as illusory.... powerful. I am a failure every day. I am a walking history of failures, some more "meaningful" to me than others. I failed to die last night. I am grateful.
My entire adult life, I have failed to commit to a career. I went to college to be a “web designer”, back before we called those people just “designers”. By the time I graduated, I had decided to I want to write and direct movies, and I even moved to Los Angeles shortly after my first year of marriage and tried to make it as a professional screenwriter. I never gained any traction, but when we returned to Indiana I decided the time was right to direct one of my own movie scripts. We got the movie in the can, and I’m still working on post-production, but the film will not be a commercial success. I learned a lot in the process of producing it, but the result will probably appeal to only a very few people. More important than learning filmmaking skills, though, was learning that I didn’t want to shoot movies for a living. I had realized that I like writing movies but not producing them. In fact, I had learned that I liked writing better than anything else I’d ever tried. Since deciding two years ago that writing was the profession I’d been ignoring my entire life, I’ve produced more satisfying work than at any other time. Although I haven’t parlayed it into a full-time career yet, I’m grateful for the restlessness that led me to fail at everything else that came before my decision to commit to writing as my self-assigned job.
Wow. My first reaction to this question was to ask: “Is there a failure I’m not grateful for?” As far back as I can remember I have been in love with learning. First about keys and what they could be used for, then about cars and every detail of every model on offer at the time. Later I started to appreciate stories and, above all, science. Every failure I had along the way always seemed like a very simple learning opportunity: I have ants on me; why? Maybe I shouldn’t climb trees with ants on them. Lesson learned.<br><br>I never really had anyone dissuade me of this simple check-and-correct learning process, so I don’t think I ever adopted any anxiety around failure. It might surprise some to learn that I've failed a class, almost been fired from a job, bombed a college final, almost lost a relationship and many less dramatic things since. I understood all of these things as learning opportunities and I’m hugely grateful that they’ve shaped me into who I am today; without them I would be likely to make those mistakes again, perhaps with worse effect! I think the part of failure I’m most grateful for now, in my old age, is not my own reaction to it, but the reactions of those around me. I try to surround myself with people who understand what it means to be human, empathic and thoughtful rather than impatient or judgmental. I think this ends up being one of the great secrets of a good life.
Why Is It So Hard for Us to Do Nothing? by Alison Gopnik:
It turns out that when we do nothing, many parts of the brain that underpin complex kinds of thinking light up.
Love People, Use Things by Arthur Brooks:
Unless you are extraordinarily self-aware, how could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are, and the other part of your time seeing how much happier others seem to be than you?
How are apps made? by Craig Mod:
The more you question the more you can refine. The more you can refine, the more potential for delight. And if not to delight — through knowledge or navigation or entertainment or communication — then why make? Why toil?<br><br>In app making as in life: Be courageous, but not foolhardy.
On a dark and stormy night, do you run to the window or pull the covers over your head?