The concept of failure became a question for me while listening to a podcast of This American Life called Regrets, I’ve had a few. The title comes from the song My Way that was written by Paul Anka and made famous by Frank Sinatra. There were three stories in the podcast. The first was about a young woman who regrets picking on her younger sister in childhood. One particular moment stands out in her mind. While being video-taped, she was put on trial for hitting her younger sister with a broom. Witnesses were called and questioned and the verdict given by her father was not guilty even though she clearly cut to her sister’s head with the broom and the resulting gush of blood had obviously been her fault. Ever since, the woman has been wracked with feelings of guilt and regret which honestly, as the eldest in my family, I don’t understand. I have long since forgotten the numerous beatings I gave my brother and rationalized as deserving.
The second story was about a former prison inmate who couldn’t afford to get rid of a swastika tattoo he’d put on his upper arm while spending time in the clinker. Now, he’s out and regrets it. I get it.
The last story was about a guy by the name of Will Ream who grew up in Colorado City, Arizona, population of 4018 give or take a few. This was home to the First Fundamentalist Mormon Church led by Warren Jeffs who really didn’t tolerate dissent within his congregation. He once expelled 20 men from the church and then reassigned their wives and children to other men. He’d send guys out late at night to vandalize the property of those who, quite reasonably, had quit his church. Will Ream was one of those guys he sent out and when Will was told not to tell his wife about his goings on late at night, he agreed to that too. Will was used to having a very open relationship with his wife. They’d married when she was 15 and he was 18 and then quickly introduced five new human beings to the world. Will’s wife was suspicious of his late night absences and marital discord was the result. After pleading with the leaders that he should be able to tell his wife what he was really doing, Will was told to make her pray harder. She left Will and the children, first on a trial basis and then permanently.
Warren Jeffs was arrested in 2006 for sexual assault and marrying underage girls. Church leaders figured that if members of the congregation showed sufficient penance to God, Warren would be set free. First, they were told that they could only wear homemade clothes and never the colour red. When that didn’t work, they were told to take away all their children’s toys and never allow them to play. It would seem that the church could do anything to Will but don’t fuck with his children. He packed them up and moved to a town not far from Salt Lake City. There, he enrolled in school to get his GED and started driving truck. School, a job, and caring for five young children would eventually lead Will to a point where one night, he was standing in the kitchen, about to prepare the evening meal and the next thing he knew, his children had eaten and the dishes were in the sink.
Following his blackout, counsellors told him that he had to get help with the children. After contacting friends he’d made in the area, the children moved to a number of different homes. As with the separation from his wife, this separation from his children began with the intent of being short-term and extended to a couple of years after which, he allowed them to be adopted by the new families. Now, he was alone, without his precious children, divorced from his wife and without the comfort of the church for support. From this experience he concludes, “I had to admit failure.”
Failure? Where did that come from? How had he failed? Maybe his wife had failed him or the church or his extended family. Where were they? How was pushing himself to a mental breakdown failure? And why failure? Why put it in that context? How did a mental breakdown somehow get related to a feeling of failure? Where did that come from?
I looked up the origin of the word failure and discovered that it didn’t come into existence until the 17th century which makes sense. How can a society that believes God to have given the king a divine right to rule blame anyone for their situation in life, whether they’re a carpenter or peasant or lord, it’s all a result of God’s will? It was based on the word failer meaning ‘non-occurrence’ or a ‘stopping of supply’ however the use of failure as it applies to the individual to not come into use until 1860.
That’s the opinion of a Rutgers University professor by the name of Scott Sandage who wrote a book called “Born Loser: A History of Failure in America.” Before that, he says there were two categories of Americans, slaves and free people. Why, you ask, would they have traded those two categories for winners and losers, successes and failure? Well, He explains that as having to do with credit rating, the brainstorm of Lewis Tappan, whose own business had gone bust after the Wall Street panic of 1837. Maybe he thought there should be a method of warning investors to stay away from businessmen like him.
How trustworthy was the person in charge the company? What were the likelihood of growth and success? With the introduction of the railway and telegraph, people were starting to move and communicate over long distances so people could invest their money in projects they knew little or nothing about. That’s where Lewis Tappan and his 2000 or so investigators came in. Research would be made into both an individual’s success and failure in business and his moral character because they were thought to be connected. For this reason, credit ratings would read like a short story. A credit rating of “A Number 1” it meant that an individual’s finances were rated “A” and his moral character was a “1.” Alternatively, a businessman could be categorized as “second rate” or “third rate” or “good for nothing.” Obviously, the “good for nothing” would have initially referred to the lending of money but would later be generalized to the whole person. Check out this tweet from Donald Trump, America’s leading Republican candidate. “We have losers. We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt,” like somehow they’re connected.
From sources researched by Dr. Sandage, he discovered that from 1820 through to the end of the Civil War, a person whose business had failed would say, “I had a failure.” After the Civil War, that sentence would become “I am a failure.” A rise in suicide rates would follow. Dr. Sandage goes on to say that the idea of failure was expanded to not only include people whose business had failed but to all those who had failed to excel in some extraordinary way. He uses Willy Loman from “A Death of a Salesman” as an example. The guy had a wife, a house with all the appliances, a car, and a couple of sons, one a star football player with a scholarship to attend college. And yet, he was a failure. Why? Because he’d done nothing extraordinary.
If everyone thinks of a regular guy like Willy Loman as a failure, then Will Ream would naturally conclude that he was one too. After all, if he was truly extraordinary, then why couldn’t he have attended school, drive truck and care for five young children all at the same time without having a mental breakdown. The problem for me is that I’ve applied the same term to myself because, like most of you out there, I’ve really done nothing extraordinary with my life.
That said, I visited Madagascar last summer and saw people whose only choice of footwear comes in the form of a rubber flip flop and all the clothing sold in markets by the side of the road were previously worn in by people like me from countries like Canada. Children stood by the side of the road holding out a hat for donations because they’d filled potholes in a road that had never been graded. In villages, we passed stores without one manufactured product, nothing that would have made a journey beyond the immediate vicinity, not because the owners were environmentally conscious but they couldn’t afford anything else. That’s because their average per capita income is $260. Can you imagine? We’ve spent more on a dinner for two, and that’s their average per capita income. It makes me want to cry.
And that guy walking by the side of the road carrying of the many yellow, plastic water containers wearing the Phi Betta Kappa shirt from the University of Michigan. Is he a failure? Has he missed out making the most of himself. Why didn’t he leave his village and pursue life his fortune in the big city along with all the other drifters scraping out a living in Antananarivo stealing anything that can be moved including all the traffic lights? Am I some kind of success because I have a house and a car and a heated garage? And how does this relate to what I really care about? How much does my credit rating matter to me? Would I be a loser in the eye of someone like Donald Trump? Obviously. Do I give a shit? Maybe, a little. Failure has become part of our vocabulary. Who doesn’t think of himself or herself as a failure on any given day? Is it time to stop? Definitely. We can all learn from a Will Ream. Maybe we’re not completely in control of our destiny and maybe we shouldn’t take credit for all our successes and failures. Maybe we should try being humble and take things as they come and not try to find so hard to find glory or fault in everything we do. Maybe Will Ream should not look at his life as a success or failure but more like a journey 'cause who knows where it's going to take us next. Even Donald can fall from his precarious perch of self-congratulation and bombast.