Am I a Failure?… Are You a Failure?…

The grave of J. R. R. and Edith Tolkien, Wolve...

People nowadays keep slinging at themselves or at others this ultimate derogatory comment: “You are a failure!”

It can have a terrible effect on people. It can lead them to a depressive or even suicidal state they have then to extract themselves from, which is usually not easy.

The main problem is that a human being can truly believe himself or herself to be “a failure”: according to the standards of their society or even simply their family, or sometimes according to their own standards first of all, it appears to them that they have failed in whatever they have tried to do, so their entire life has been useless and worthless. The logical conclusion when one is in that state of mind: death is the only way out of this empty, meaningless, purposeless and therefore shameful existence.

The persons to whom this happens may be actually still quite young – very young sometimes – and yet they feel their life has already ended, nothing more can happen that would bring about anything of value into what they see as their bleak, futile nothingness. So the only desire left in them is for an early death. Only those who still have in themselves enough love for a few other persons like their parents or some special friends, are protected by this from committing suicide, as they know how terribly this would hurt the people they love, and so they refrain from taking their own lives as otherwise they would.

The tragedy in this inner condition is that from an objective point of view, nothing really that happened (or didn’t happen) in their life would deserve such a harsh and final self-condemnation on their part, but they will blindly and obstinately refuse to be convinced of that, even by the most logical and obvious arguments. So parents and friends can only watch, powerless, the slow or fast degradation of that person they love, but cannot reach anymore, for their beloved has shut himself or herself into a dark bubble of their own making, through which everything appears of course darkened, but those within it believe all of it to be the true reality of things. They think themselves to be the realistic ones, and the others to be those with a too luminous, rosy, unrealistic view of everything.

Even the persons who are actually very successful, or have been, aren’t immune to that disease of the mind: nobody can stay for ever on the top, a time inevitably comes when the success becomes less, or disappears entirely, and then those “have been”, as they are often cruelly called, start to sink. So many great artists on the stage or the screen have died forgotten, embittered and desperate, because the wave of public adulation, however justified and durable it had been, didn’t last for ever. Obviously, many had, a long time before, tried to find solace or oblivion in alcohol or drugs, too often only to precipitate their own downfall towards a miserable end. Others, as soon as they face the first signs of oncoming old age, prefer to discretely end their life, or at least to end any public appearance, so that at least in people’s memory their image will remain for ever one of glory.

But most of us more ordinary humans don’t even have that option, for there was never in our life any “glory” that we could be remembered for.

Let’s face it: most of us live apparently non-successful lives, and don’t seem to show in their way of being anything so special that others could be impressed with it. Most of us had dreams, oh yes, when we were young and full of hopes for our life; but in most cases our life actually unfolded on other lines, and our dreams got lost along the way.

How is one to consider oneself when this has happened?

Is one “a failure”, or worse even, “a complete failure”, just because one has remained until mature age simply an “ordinary” person?…

The entire issue depends on what your reference points are for your life.

If all you are interested about is what your neighbors think of you, and what you think of them, if your main preoccupation is how to top them in this or that respect, if for you life is just a vast competition to the top, the more ruthless the better, and if such goals really satisfy you, then it will be life on those terms that you will indeed meet, for better or for worse. You may win and conquer again and again, and be admired by others for your powerful personality. But then don’t complain if at the end of your life so lived, when the life-energy is about to leave your physical body, your last memory, like for “Citizen Kane”, is the image of that cherished childhood toy you thought you had forgotten since long, but which suddenly re-emerges from the mysterious depths of your being, the only memory of true, simple happiness that still shines and sings in you softly after this entire hollow existence.  

The more idealistic purposes one may embrace and do one’s best to achieve, particularly through whatever political and social means at one’s disposal, give a more meaningful and truly satisfying life; but in such a context the “success” is all-relative always, as it is usually quite a long-term affair to improve anything in our human societies with a lasting result.

And unless the changes obtained after a fierce struggle through new Rules and Regulations correspond to a genuine change in consciousness on the part of a big part of humanity as a whole, , those Rules and Regulations, although necessary and to some extent useful, will not really affect the masses and their usual behavior. So “success” here  is likely to be a very mixed thing, and quite frustrating often more suggestive of actual failure than of the expected or claimed victory.

Only the much deeper level of our collective reality, the level of the Spirit in All That Is and in each human being, can bring about the permanent changes idealists (like me and the ever increasing number of dedicated others) are after:

“The changes we see in the world today are intellectual, moral, physical, in their ideal and intention; the spiritual revolution waits for its hour and throws up meanwhile its waves here and there.Until it comes the sense of the others cannot be understood and till then all interpretation of present happening and forecast of man’s future are vain things. For its nature, power, event are that which will determine the next cycle of our humanity.” (Sri Aurobindo, ‘Thoughts and Glimpses’).

In our contemporary world dominated by the materialistic beliefs Science has imposed upon itself, a dogma more rigidly limiting than those of many religions, few are the human beings who still are able to feel they have a soul, and fewer yet those who know the more accurate truth, that they ARE a soul.

They may choose to remain within the overall framework of whatever religion they were born in, or they may prefer to join a different religion, or to live their personal relationship with the Divine in their own private and independent way altogether, outside of any such institutionalized framework.

For most religious and traditional spiritual paths, the very notions of “success” or “failure” are only in reference to the otherworldly goal they pursue; ordinary ambition and success are shunned and condemned as worthless distractions, in the name of the Spirit, understood as having nothing to do with this world of Matter and lowly physicality – although the collective ego of each Church can very well and usually does consider it important for the Church itself to have power and riches, or for its Crusades to be won.

Those human beings who set themselves free from the limitations imposed from outside by the diktats of one Church or the other, decide for themselves whether they want worldly success or not; they can do like Eric Liddell of ‘Chariots of Fire’ fame, who, although a fervent Christian, decided to go for outer success in the  Olympic Games, because he felt in that way he honored the God who had made him fast and was rejoicing in him while he ran. He and others like him often meet success when they are still young and full of the enthusiasm and physical energy of youth, and then they withdraw from their own volition rather than from any sense of failure, joining then the more important causes their life was really dedicated to: in Eric’s case, the Mission in China. They had their hour of glory when it suited them, and then they move on, going on with their lives with other purposes that may seem less glorious to others, but not to them.

There are people on the contrary who look pretty much like ordinary persons and seem to lead rather ordinary lives for a long time, with only the just above normal professional honors to be expected towards the end of a decent enough career. Are they then to be considered as ‘failures’? Should they themselves come to that same distressing conclusion, feel ashamed and become depressive or suicidal about it?

Professor JRR Tolkien was apparently that kind of person, in his case the typical intellectual lost in his philological research and in the classes he was giving in Oxford on such remotely known topics as ‘Tha Eadigan Saelidan’ or “Beowulf”. He was seen just as the distinguished and successful enough academic that he was, known for his actual brilliance mostly by his few close friends and by his students, who loved how ancient texts would come alive when he was acting them out with his surprising inner intensity and /or sense of humor. And he seemed destined to finish his existence in the same almost ordinary way… until the unexpected day when, quite late in his life – in his early sixties – he was suddenly revealed as the talented author of a great little story for children, “The Hobbit”, an instantaneous best-seller; and soon after that, the public discovered him as the author of an even greater, more truly beautiful and vaster story, “The Lord of the Rings”, of which “The Hobbit” had represented merely a small preliminary; and for those who waited still longer, JRRT after his death was revealed as the profound and inspired mind who had in fact secretly conceived of an entire mythology for England, starting with the still vaster vision of the Genesis of the Universe and of the many Tales of Light and Beauty and Happiness and Loss that followed, in that central portion of “Arda” called “Middle-earth” during its First Ages. Preceding all his other books, but never published before, this was “The Silmarillion”, an extraordinary tapestry of magnificent ancient stories he had started writing already in 1916, during WWI, when still a newly-married young academic horrified by this terrible war.

At the late age when success finally and unexpectedly came, Tolkien could have been already since years an embittered man, but he was not; his long-held secret of writing this huge epic could have turned into a heavy burden, but in spite of the many difficulties of daily life his secondary life in Middle-earth remained on the contrary a deeply satisfying creative activity, even when he thought no one would ever be interested in his story, and he was writing it all rather for his own inner need of it than anything else.

Suddenly propelled out of the academic circles into the world of Fame, to his own astonishment as well as that of his bemused colleagues, JRRT saw during those last twenty years of his long and well filled life the realization of that ancient dream of his which he had never even striven openly to realize, given the ‘real life’ context that forced him to toil over the years for simply being able to feed his family. With the publishing success came at last the financial ease he had so much longed for; academic as well as royal honors were poured on him. The only deep grief that marred that last period was the death in 1971 of his dear wife Edith, the romantic love of his youth that he had insisted to marry, and who even in the end still embodied for him that central feminine character in his Story,  the Elvish princess”Luthien”, whom as “Beren”, her  Mortal companion, he couldn’t bear being separated from. Hardly two years later, he himself died. On their tomb are engraved, upon his request, not only their official names, but also those two other names that had secretly united them all along beyond their visible lives.

This story of JRR Tolkien’s life, and the lives of so many others in the world, show us then that it might be unwise to ever consider oneself a success – it may stop at any moment – or a failure – for that too may change at any moment.  Until the time of one’s actual death, nothing can be predicted or expected with any certainty. And after anyone’s death, if other people new the complete truth of the matter for that single individual, everyone’s life would be found to have been in fact both a failure, by certain aspects of it, and by other aspects a success… so the entire question could be simply put to rest for everybody, you and I included!


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