Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Phoenix from the Ashes

I was thinking today about failure, and how afraid people are of failure. Fear of failure is the death of art and creativity and often of social opportunities, too.

I think, for example, of the many men who are too intimidated to introduce themselves to women at parties, and this makes me think of the many men who asked me and my friends to dance at a ceilidh last Friday night.

One great thing about social dancing is that the reason why men ask you to dance is because they want to dance. I think Alisha told me once that it is bad manners to turn down a dance (unless for a very, VERY good reason), so I never did, even though I am shy about my dancing skills. Thank heavens it was an old-fashioned gathering where women were naturally assumed to be the followers. Having been asked to dance so often, and having been competently led, I, loather of dance class, had a very good time at this ceilidh.

I hope it really is a rule that women at public social dances are not supposed to refuse dances because it suggests that here, at last, is a place where men can be relatively sure they can interact socially with women without being shot down. And the better they can dance (especially the better they can lead), the more grateful women will be to dance with them. And the more the men work at it, the better they will be able to dance and lead.

But to start such a new activity does mean overcoming a fear of failure.

The fascinating thing about the relationship between creativity and failure is that both the pay-offs for an experiment that goes right and an experiment that goes wrong can be enormous. The surrealist who first painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa is hailed as a great wit; the woman who satirized Gone with the Wind with The Wind Done Gone was accused of plagiarism. (The book was published, however, and became a bestseller.)

Creativity depends on risk--on formulating new ideas, on doing something new, on taking apart someone's project--like a mobile phone--and putting it together in a whole new way. But risk does indeed imply failure.

Failure hurts. But it is interesting to really look at what in a failure was the real failure.

My two worst failures were giving up my dream of marrying a fellow Catholic (age 25) and not paying attention to the voice in my head that said, You will not be able to make it through a PhD program in this place alone (age 35). The marriage was not a failure; the failure was contracting it. The PhD was not a failure; the failure was not being rooted in the reality of the environment. The first failure came about through fear of being alone; the second failure came about through pride.

The first failure was somewhat resolved by blogging for Single women, and it was completely resolved when I did marry a fellow Catholic (age 38). The second failure is not resolved. Maybe I'll let you know when it is, if it is.

Failing and then persevering. It's the American dream--and the Christian narrative, too. Our Lord's creative work on earth looked like a big failure, one for which He was blamed and mocked and crucified, but His work transformed the world and His very crucifixion led to Easter Sunday.

In today's combox, it would be great if you described a failure from which you recovered and a success that followed it.

I'm taking the guard off the combox because I don't have much internet access today, so please be respectful of the feelings of other readers. Remember that this is a place where vulnerable, often lonely, Single women with unfashionable (e.g. traditionalist) opinions should feel safe.


Bernadette said...

It really is the rule, at least at swing dances, that if a guy asks you to dance, your default answer is always yes. But there are limits. You can say no if you are tired and need to rest for a few songs, having an asthma attack, the song is too fast or too slow for your skill/comfort level, or you know that the guy is painful or otherwise unpleasant to dance with. Merely being in the midst of a riveting conversation with your bestie (or even your crush object) is not an acceptable excuse. Moreover, once you have turned one guy down for a particular dance, you cannot then accept another guy for that same dance, but must sit it out on the sidelines. This rule also goes for guys who are asked to dance.

If you have to say no for one of the first three reasons, it is considered polite to go ask the guy for a dance in return once the circumstances are more favorable (you have gotten your second wind/your inhaler has taken effect/the song is a better tempo). If you have said no for the fourth reason, then there's not much you can do, since dance etiquette also forbids negatively commenting on another dancer's skill unless directly asked to give feedback, or if one is an instructor of the given dancer during a dance class. So unless he directly asks you about his dancing, you can't really tell him it's because he really needs to take more showers, or he digs his hand painfully into your back, or his leading is so forceful that afterwards you feel like you've been doing push-ups, or whatever.

And while we're on the topic, I have to add that swing dancing is also probably one of my easiest examples of failing & persevering. I've been dancing for a little over seven years now, and I think there is nothing like social dancing to make you work through body issues, trust issues, etc. If you want to improve, you have to face your failings time and again, and work through them. From learning how to trust my lead enough to really follow, to letting go of my anxiety and self-consciousness while I dance, to just keeping my stinking elbow tucked in. I don't know if I'll ever completely be the dancer I really want to be, but in the meantime, I'm having some pretty good dances. The first time I was able to move with my partner to music, and to feel the two of us working together and with the music to create something that was a sum far greater than all of its parts was one of the best things I have ever experienced. It was only ten seconds in a rotation at a workshop, but it changed my life. There are still hard things about dancing that I'm working through, but I know that they're worth the work.

Jam said...

I guessed I've been blessed that I can't think of anything truly major...!

About a year ago I presented a paper at a conference, and I didn't submit it for the best paper prize. It was a pretty minor conference; there wasn't any money attached to it; I was feeling kind of depressed and anxious and I think on some subconscious level I wanted to punish myself in some little way. Anyway, the deadline to submit for the award arrived and I pretty consciously didn't send my paper in. One of my professors was at the conference and when he found out I "forgot" to send my paper in for the award he was really beside himself. Having heard the other papers I have to agree with him I certainly had a good shot at the prize. He told my advisor, and I heard from both of them about it. Since then, my advisor has made it clear she doesn't think I put myself forward enough and has had an eagle eye for any signs of slacking off on my part. And I have heard through the grapevine that the professor who was at the conference wrote a rather lukewarm letter in support of one of my funding applications last year -- VERY serious business indeed. Luckily I didn't need his letter in the end and my source weeded it out. But clearly, this one little failure was not so little as I had thought it would be.

I don't know if I have recovered from it yet; certainly if this professor is going to be writing lukewarm letters about me it could still have devastating consequences. But it has made me very good about applying for conferences, and being conspicuously busy, and winning a best paper prize is definitely a top goal of mine now. In the surprising aftermath, I went back over what happened and noticed that possible little desire to sabotage myself, and I think it's made me more self-aware. I never used to take that kind of "funk" seriously but I don't let myself stew that far anymore. (Okay, "stew" and "far" don't go together, but whatever.)

claire r. said...

Jam, I am sorry to hear about the lukewarm letter. Graduate school can be the pits. Would you be able to keep that professor off your thesis or dissertation committee? A friend of mine recently switched her dissertation advisor when the one she had before told her he might not be able to write a good letter on her behalf.

I have just finished grad school and am now on the academic job market, and I am struggling with the fear of failure that Seraphic describes, so I really needed this post. I find myself waiting until the last minute to apply for the jobs that I really want, and then just slopping something out, while I submit the applications for the jobs that I do not want quite early and with much better editing and preparation. I've even passed up applying for some jobs that I would have liked. Argh.

Jam said...

Claire! You poor thing, out on the job market. Not looking forward to that. :( Isn't it upsetting to see yourself so actively getting in your own way? As I've been thinking about this today I'm more and more thinking I should schedule an appointment at our campus mental health center to talk to someone about it. Self-sabotage is frustrating and alarming.

I am really hoping I can win him over; the letter was written fairly shortly after the incident, and I intend that the next time I have to approach him for something my CV will be more impressive. That, and I think he should like the dissertation work when he sees it. It would be bad to have to take him off the committee, not only because, with the make up of the department, it would be obvious and problematic if he weren't on it. Potentially he could retire before my defense but even then I want him as a reference. He's one of those old men who knows everybody and is the past present of seemingly every organization. He's too much of an asset not to have on my side. So... yeah, gotta win him over.

Jackie said...

Jam and Claire, my thoughts are with you! Academia can be as hard as Hades, with all the demands and crazy politics. :(

As for phoenixes and ashes, this story is not the easiest to, but it's mine:

When I was in grad school, I became engaged to Sir Jerkface. I was upfront with SJ about my beliefs and morals, from Day 1. Unfortunately, he was not on the same page and kept pushing and pushing me to break them.

At that point in time I had, at his request, quit my extremely difficult grad program, my assistantship, my housing situation and my position.

The only thing I had going for me was an audition in my field that I was going to take as a stopgap measure. It was quite competitive, as well.

The night before the audition, I received a phonecall at 2am. Earlier, I had left a message on his phone, saying I love you. This phonecall was from a woman, though, who had intercepted my message and was telling me she was sleeping with him and wearing his shirt right now.

So when I did not give in, he found someone else who would. Unfortunately, as he was still engaged to me at the time this was dirty, rotten, scummy cheating. spent the rest of the night completely in shock and couldn't stop throwing up.

I'm never down for long, though: The next day I went to the audition anyway, despite being late, being in shock and even forgetting my music.

When I got home, there was a message on the phone. It was from S. Jerkface-- it was the audition committee! I had won over all competition!

The contract was waiting to be signed and the position was enough to pay the bills, get back into my grad program and finish. (I got the housing situation back and the other work back, too.)

More importantly, I really returned to my faith and focused on devotion. I used to sit in church after Mass just to let the tears fall and tried to soak up the peace that was there.

After that contract ended, Sister S. advised me to continue my education and make a fresh start in a new place. I found a fully-funded grad program, a wonderful church, and tons of friends. I finished my doctorate in less than three years and accomplished what I set out to do.

I don't know if I'm a phoenix: In a Hollywood movie, I would have met someone Completely Awesome and fallen in love, happily ever after. Instead, here I am on my own, yearning for my own family. While Sir Jerkface is married to Lady Jerkface. :(

But I do my best and seek God and find joy where I can.

I know this was long! Thanks for listening, fellow angelic singles. :)

Jackie said...

Oops, I just noticed about a million typos and syntax errors in my account above. :( Sometimes it's hard to stay cool-headed when writing about this stuff.

anonymous for once said...

Jackie... I recognize myself in your story, and I'm sorry you went through something like that. In my case, I wasn't quite engaged to Mr. Toxic, but we were getting there, and I had already given up so many things 'for' him (or, more like, at his demand) - job, housing situation, etc. It was stupid, I know, but after all, we were going to get engaged, married, and live happily ever after, right?

My Mr. Toxic didn't cheat on me, but he was so insistent in certain matters that I felt constantly guilty for not giving in. No matter how much I tried to devote to him (time, money, my life), he was never happy, because he insisted on having the one thing I didn't want to give him.

I reached the worst point in my life on our 'anniversary' and called my parents sobbing, asking why I was so miserable when I was supposed to be so happy? at that point, I hadn't been eating well or sleeping for over a month.

My wonderful parents swooped in, literally - driving over 7 hours in the cold to pick me up from where I was, leaving Mr. Toxic stunned and crying on the sidewalk and drive me back home, where my sisters had prepared my old childhood room, complete with cozy blankets and my favorite flowers.

The few months I spent at home afterwards showed me what is really important in life, and who cares about me. My fabulous family, my loving friends, our wonderful pastor who handed me tissue after tissue as I wept in his office.

Eight months later, I'm celebrating my half-year anniversary in a completely different job - paid less, but more fulfilling, in a city with a vibrant Catholic community, learning a new language, exploring the countryside, and in love with life. I've never been a happier single than right now, when I know I can do anything without a certain person's critical stare down my neck, or hurtful comments.

I never thought I could rebound this well - but after 2 months of being cared for and loved at home, I was ready to face the world again, I needed a challenge.

What did I learn? That I need to trust my deep inner instincts and never, ever try to convince myself into a situation if I somehow feel wrong. That after the deepest sadness and hurt, there can come beautiful moments, and happiness.

Oh, and never to root myself up for a guy again.

Jackie, my prayers are with you - but it sounds like you came out of a horrible, horrible situation victorious - I admire your courage and strength, and I'm sure even better things are in store for you!

AMW said...

Can I just throw in one big HUG for the girls who have posted - you are a brave crowd and I have enormous respect for you all!

My biggest fear has always been to overcome fear!

I had the perfect scenario a few years ago when I received a random email with an incredible offer to finish my third year of uni overseas. I'm fine with dreaming about stuff like that and filling in the paperwork, but I know, I secretly know - it'll never happen.
But this time, it did. I got the offer and for a moment, I hesitated.
I told my brother about my misgivings and in his usual casual tone informed me that I was crazy to consider turning the offer down and to get over myself.
So I did.
And it has been one of the best things I have ever done in my life.
I got to live in one of the most beautiful countries, studying something I enjoyed, with a nice cheque from the uni and just generally had a glorious time.
The implications have been far reaching and all positive.
I was kind of introduced to my eventual lay vocation there too. And to my niche field of study.
All because I took the plunge and went outside my comfort zone.

I'd like to think I could do it again, but I'd probably still go through the motions of being afraid first.
It's hard to kick the habit of a lifetime.
If there was an Olympic event for worrying, I'd come first every time!

MaryJane said...

I feel like we should have a cocktail party for people who have stepped foot near graduate school in any way! :)

All these comments are awesome and show such a courageous feminine spirit - love it!

I can't think of any good stories right now about my life (though I am sure there are some), but I just noticed a trend that I am hoping you will pontificate on, Seraphic. Why is it always that we women give up SO MUCH for the men? This is true both inside and outside of marriage - you yourself left home and country to be with B.A., and I have a lot of married friends who do something similar for their husbands. Why are there so few stories of boyfriends, fiances, and husbands giving up everything to be with a woman?

Seraphic said...

Well, you won't here many stories about men's sacrifices on my blog because I banned men from the comments box.

However, "It's a Wonderful Life" is about a man who constantly put himself second and gave up many things for love: he rescued his brother and therefore lost his hearing, he fell in love with his wife so gave up his dreams of travelling around the world, and he took on the family business not because he wanted to but because he knew he had to.

My guess is that thousands of men give up their "rock'n'roll" dreams to get a real job, to marry, to be good husbands and dads. Society can be hard on them if they don't.

We make a big fuss of men who "give it all up" for the priesthood and religious life, and perhaps in most cases they really have made serious sacrifices. But men who marry aren't walking into job security and guaranteed (if poor) income for the rest of their lives, and they are held even more stringently to their vows.

In terms of material comfort, the well-paid, bachelor male executive or professional really has it made. If he has a very hazy grasp of God or sexual justice, and is relatively charming, he can get all the sex he wants, when he wants (with variety, if he wants). Marriage puts an end to that.

I think the reason why parents cry when their sons get married is because their sons are showing that they are capable of loving someone and sacrificing for someone other than themselves.

Meanwhile, women are not usually interested in men sacrificing their careers and earning-potential but in men sacrificing their freedoms, hobbies and not-rooted-in-reality dreams.

It's really, really tragic that not all men who love music, writing and art can make their living at music, writing and art. It sucks, and it takes a really, REALLY special woman just to do 9-5 (or 6AM-9PM) everyday so her husband can work on his writing career, making very little or no pay.

I don't feel like I gave up everything for B.A., although I really miss family, friends and the Canadian health system. (Anything in the British bureaucracy--especially the National Health Service--scares the living daylights out of me.) I do the same occasional work I did between quitting the PhD and meeting him, and I have a lifestyle most struggling writers would envy.

Gracie said...

Unfortunately, having pessimistic tendencies, I struggle not to look at much of my life - especially my meaningful but challenging work - in terms of constant failure or evidence of inadequacies. It's not so much a major failure that I've had to face as much as it's the every day struggle (some days better or worse than others) to persevere and to do so with a hopeful and positive attitude.
Thankfully God continues to help me realize the strength of my critical eye but He also teaches me to trust Him more, and to live in His freedom and not my anxiety. :)

claire r. said...

Thanks for the sympathy, Jam. Maybe I should talk to one of the university counselors too. I went some years ago, and I ended up taking a short course on stress relief from them, which was pretty helpful. I hope everything works out well with that professor, considering that you are stuck with him being on the committee. Graduate school departmental politics and personalities can make things so difficult. I second the call for a cocktail party for anyone who has experienced graduate school.

Alisha said...

I am so incredibly inspired by these stories - bravo to all of you.
I can't speak of a specific story of failure because honestly, most of my artistic life feels like one from the world's point of view, but I have learned to see things through the lens of Christ whose defeat was actually victory. My lack of worldly success is unimportant - it's about whether I am serving where I should be. Of course, I wish I was successful. It hurts not to be, it's really discouraging at times, but I have a clear understanding of my purpose - it's to be leaven, to be salt & light, to be a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies so that there will eventually be a greater harvest in this field. The clearest example of that was several years ago when I had moved back home from Montreal due to spiritual, emotional and mental exhaustion, plus illness which included a compromised voice. I wanted to quit singing forever. Even in the shower. I was jaded, frustrated, and saw the impossibility of my performance dreams ever coming true. I decided to go visit New York for various reasons and came back with two convictions: 1) I was supposed to sing though I didn't necessarily know how or where and 2) God really loved me and was there where I was. Shortly thereafter I began performing again, including putting together my own cabaret (very daunting for me), which I performed in Toronto, New York, and Montreal, and now have done several more, sung in a swing band, sung in a workshop for the composer of Wicked...all kinds of things that terrified me. These were all small personal successes that have built up my confidence. Though I don't appear to be any closer to realizing my professional goals, what is being done in me is what counts rather than what I am doing.
Seraphic - you are right about the woman who supports the artistic husband. It's tougher when both of them are artists, which would be my situation, I imagine, if I married. (I'm never attracted to non artists.)
Jackie - curious about what kind of performer you are? I always like to know fellow Christian artists, if you are on FB :)

I was going to qualify what I had said about never turning down a dance but Bernadette said everything necessary. I have become much more choosy over the years, though most of the time I don't have to be. I don't dance with men if I get a creepy vibe or there is an uncomfortable age difference, but I live in such an awesome scene that happens almost never.

Keep fighting the good fight, ladies! Oh, and I wrote a song about this theme if you want to check it out (shameless self promotion, I know!)

Seraphic said...

Thanks, Alisha! You have always been an inspiration to me and sometimes your example is what keeps me from giving up on my own dreams of success.

Sarah said...

Embarrassing confession:

I turned down a perfectly nice male friend of mine when he asked me to dance. Partly because it was a waltz, and I don't know how to waltz well, so I don't like to waltz unless the guy knows how to waltz very well, and this guy was as new at it as I was, partly because he's over a foot taller than me, and partly because I was in a bad mood because the guy I WANTED to ask me to dance (and who IS a good waltzer) hadn't yet.

I felt bad immediately after, but the WORST part is that the moment is forever captured on film because someone had a video camera out. There was a lot of music and we were standing too far away for the conversation to be heard, and I'm sure it looks to everyone else like we're just talking, but I know what was going on, and it makes me blush every time I see that video.

On the subject of failures, this was a failure of manners I won't make again.

Urszula said...

This is unrelated to the topic of the post, but related to your comment, Seraphic, and the thread about 'artist men' and their hardworking wives.

One thing that I've found hard to get used to in the Catholic community is the multitude of men who have very low-paying jobs which enable them to 'follow their dreams'. I understand that if you have a passion for something, if you feel it is your vocation, you should actively pursue it. But if your dream also entails raising a (often large) Catholic family, shouldn't you - as a Catholic man, often clinging to traditional breadwinner roles - take the economy into account when choosing your profession?

A large part of my male Catholic acquaintances went to liberal arts schools and are now earning a pittance, because they choose to major in philosophy or other area where the earnings are very low unless you are at the top of the academic ladder. A prime example of this is an acquaintance who is pursuing a Ph D in some remote field and earning next-to-nothing as a TA while his wife earns most of their meager income, working part-time and taking care of the 3 kids. I can’t help feeling this guy is being supremely selfish by pursuing his academic dream while leaving his wife to deal with the unpleasant aspect of ‘reality’ and basically consigning the whole family to poverty. Am I seeing this whole issue wrong?

Seraphic said...

I won't say you're wrong, but I think you should imagine it from the wives' perspective. They signed on for this, and they may be taking a gamble on the PhD dreams working out and the men actually getting a good job in academia or some other field where a PhD gets you a serious salary. They may have deals--about which you know nothing--about what the wives will do once the husbands' degrees have won them decent jobs.

The phenomenon of wives working joe jobs while their husbands go through medical school (for example) is an old one. The wives may also be getting emotional and social satisfaction from their husbands' association with glamorous old academia.

A good rule of thumb is that nobody knows the dynamics of a marriage except the two people in it. So don't worry about these married women. You just mind your own business and keep working on your own career.

MaryJane said...

I have to say the "don't worry about the married women" line is kind of funny for me... mostly because I have learned not to, but it took a long time! I would look at my friends (admittedly, most of whom got married very young) and think, "there is no way she could really be happy." In fact, I learned that this meant, "there is no way *I* would be happy in her shoes" - because of course they are all generally very happy.

And I guess the same is true about making sacrifices. To you, Seraphic, moving to Scotland was not "giving everything up" although of course it can be difficult at times... but for someone like me, I think that actually would be giving everything up! Which of course is why it is you in the Historical House and not I (amongst a million other reasons).

I guess it is just a matter of figuring out which kinds of sacrifices are appropriate and which are just a betrayal of self.

Alisha said...

Thanks, Seraphic. That means a lot. :)