A few years ago I reconnected with my college boyfriend on Facebook. When he asked what I was up to, I hedged a little, writing of my successes and omitting my perceived failures. No need to share those with him, right? When I asked what he was up to, he wrote back, “Everything has gone pretty much as planned.”
I sulked over that one for a while. While my life looked almost nothing like the life I had once imagined for myself, he had planned his life carefully, moved diligently through the steps, and reached his appointed goal with seeming ease. I tried not to take his success as a reflection of my failure, but it was hard not to think that I had somehow messed up, still looking for the right life so many years after I was supposed to have settled into maturity and stasis.
So it was a relief when I recently picked up a copy of The Way of Failure, by Mariana Caplan. In the chapter titled “The Failure of Expectations and Plans,” Caplan recounts a common joke that I had heard repeated several times: “How do you make God laugh?” The answer: “Tell him your plans.”
Caplan’s book is a refreshing reminder that failure is not only normal and common, but it is an opportunity to grow in wisdom and acceptance. “As human beings we did not create the universe and thus cannot control it,” Caplan writes. She reminds us that life is unpredictable and that rather than driving headlong toward “success,” we are better off remaining flexible and accepting the world as it is.
“Paradoxically, we proceed with our expectations and plans with all of our will and effort and passion while simultaneously acknowledging the inevitability of their failure to turn out how we desire them to. We ‘succeed’ by having cultivated an attitude toward life that is both open and allowing.”
When I read that, I thought back to my Facebook exchange with my ex-boyfriend and realized, gratefully, that like me, he had probably shared only the successes with me, just as I had shared only my successes with him. Behind every success are multiple small and large failures, and none of us escapes this life unscathed. But each of us has the opportunity to accept what life gives us and make the best of it, perhaps even finding in each failure the seeds of some deeper success.