“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Many people read Samuel Beckett’s words and they see cynicism and hopelessness. One alternative is to look into those words and see the spark of life that truly animates us and makes us face each day. An example can be found in The Myth of Sisyphus. When Sisyphus descends from the mountain to retrieve the boulder that fate has cursed him to roll up the hill every day, only to watch it slip loose and come tumbling down again just as he is about to reach the pinnacle, I don’t believe he despairs of the hopelessness of his task and his constant failure. As Friederich Nietszche said, “the doing is everything,” and I believe that Sisyphus is able to carry on with his task because “the doing” is enough. I believe that life is about “the doing,” and whether we succeed or fail doesn’t change the fact that every day we have met the demands at the core of our existence if we continue to make the attempt.
I am a high school English teacher and a cross country coach, and on a daily basis I see my students and athletes reach great pinnacles of learning and achievement, but more often I witness failure. The myriad avenues for failure in a traditional high school range from the mundane and commonplace, such as failing a test; to the tragic, like the death of a student. More times than I care to remember, I have seen kids fail and through it all, I try to help them process their failures. “What did you learn from this? What will you do next time? Why don’t you try it again? I want you to try it again.” I try to help them to see that from failure comes opportunity and that the doing is everything.
This has become something of a credo with my cross country athletes. Our sport is a paean to failure. Think about it. There may be 150 kids who compete in a typical cross country race and only one person will win the race. If you think of sports in terms of winning and losing, then there is a lot more failing in cross country than success. The great irony of endurance sports is that, if you’re really giving it everything you have, you do what we call “running until failure” which is the point where you’ve gone so far past your anaerobic threshold that your body can no longer deliver enough blood and oxygen to your brain that you pass out. You just hope that you reach this point of spectacular failure as you are falling across the finish line. Our sport is rife with failure, so the special individuals who do it can only “fail better” and like Sisyphus, take some small satisfaction in the doing. The best of them get a little bit faster every time they push the boulder up the hill.
One thing very few people know about me is that I have had two names in my life. The first name, Eddy, was given to me by the nuns at Catholic Charities who cared for me as an infant until I was adopted by my parents who renamed me Todd. Whenever I hear the name Eddy, I think about my biological mother, just a teenager when she gave birth to me, and how she must have felt herself a failure at having a baby that she wasn’t able to care for. Then I think about the wonderful life I have lived as Todd and truly believe that from failure comes opportunity. I only wish she could know that she didn’t really fail.
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