The Unbearable Weight of Intentional Failure – Letting My Students and Myself Fail On Purpose

It’s been seven months since I wrote anything for myself. Correction: since I completed anything for myself. I’ve started nineteen different posts and poems since then, and I let each of them die a slow, painful death as I realized that I didn’t care about what I was writing. Perhaps that’s not right either. I did care about each of them, but as I wrote, I realized that I didn’t know what I actually wanted to say. I couldn’t find my true north in any of it and my point just wandered. It may have been I was just overwhelmed; we moved into a new home, COVIDs third serious wave happened, and the general state of the world seems to be deteriorating. It could have been depression. I’ve known for some time I experience mild to moderate depression, and the winter months have always been hardest. Or, really, I just had nothing of note to say. At least nothing of any original thought or real worth. So, I let my infant writings, those malformed, baby ideas, wither and die. As if I was a Spartan parent who had a “defective” child who thought they had no worth if they couldn’t fight and win.

There’s a definite difference between choosing to let something end and lying to yourself that you’ll get back to it but never do. You can drag it on indefinitely, never letting it go and allowing it to retain space in your brain, nagging at you to pay attention to it. To feed it. To let it free. But when you choose to allow yourself to end it, to admit failure, the pain is quick and sever, but it’s done. Sometimes, that is the best course of action, but it’s a dangerous one. What if you quit on something that still has a chance? It could fight on, and not just survive, but thrive! That indecision is what keeps so many of us from moving on, whether the choice is to write something or not, to break up with someone, to continue working somewhere we’re unhappy, or something more serious, like deciding to part with a beloved pet who is sick, or to let a parent go.

What makes it worse is that nobody can tell you to end it but yourself. Sure, letting someone else do that just shifts the responsibility to them, but you’ll still carry that weight with you and you’ll still wonder if it was the right choice. I chose to allow my writings to fail, to die and I’m glad I did. It allowed me to focus on other things, like my health and my teaching. This year, I received my first distinguished rating of my career, and I’ve actually managed my grading to the point of almost getting feedback to my students withing a week. At least, for the essays and the important work. And I’ve lost another twenty pounds this year!

Allowing myself to fail in something that took up a lot of mental space gave me time and energy to focus on other things. But what prompted my return to writing was just a few words from three people: One was an email I received from a student and the others were a from a friend while having a drink, and a letter I read from Kurt Vonnegut to a student.

My student had taken my class while we were in Hybrid teaching, and she had chosen to stay at home and learn remotely. Like many students, she had not done well in that environment, her mental health was suffering and she was failing my class. I reached out to her, and told her it was okay to let it go, to not worry about my class and to focus on herself. I told her it was more important to take care of herself than to finish school on some arbitrary deadline, and if she had to retake the course, or even the whole year, it was not the end of the world. I knew she was a smart girl, and that she could do well, but she needed to get herself sorted out first. This week she emailed me to say thank you. She said, “There were moments when I wanted to dropout, you’re one of the reasons I pushed myself to keep going. Thank you for understanding my situation. I know it was wasn’t much, but your words of encouragement meant a lot to me.” She went on to say that she was now getting A’s and B’s in her classes, and she should graduate on time. When I say I cried reading those words, I literally sat in my class openly crying in front of my current students. This wasn’t the first time.

Photo by Todoran Bogdan on Pexels.com

A few days before that I was having a drink with my co-worker, Jon, who is also a writer, and I was expressing my pain at not having written in some time. He reminded me that I don’t have to sit down for a marathon writing session every time, that I don’t have to knock out a piece every time I write. That if I can squeeze ten, fifteen minutes of creative time into my day, it’s worth it even if you don’t do anything with it. God knows how much time I waste on my phone or on social media. Don’t we all? Like so much in my life, I tend to put things off until the task is overwhelming and I have to spend hours to take care of it instead of doing it in manageable chunks. But Jon reminded me that ten minutes writing at night is just as rewarding as an hour or two spent in front of a computer on the weekend, like I am right now.

And just a few hours later, Facebook showed me a post featuring a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to a young student from Xavier High School seeking advice. They may be evil, but their algorithm does comes in handy some days. He said, “Practice any art—music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage—no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow. Write a six-line poem about anything… Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”

Jon, and Kurt, helped remind me that the purpose of writing and art doesn’t have to have a purpose. The purpose is to create, to think, to feel things in my soul and express them. If others can appreciate it, great, but that is not the purpose. I let my writing fail in order to focus on me, because I needed work and time, and it’s time I needed. But now, it’s time to regrow and to find that purpose again. A purpose I can find anywhere I have a few minutes to spare, not just hours.

I didn’t get into this job to encourage students to fail, and that’s not exactly what I did for my student, but I reminded her that sometimes you have to take care of other things that matter, like yourself, and in order to do so, you may have to let some ideas and plans die. And when that happens, it’s amazing what can grow from the remains. I hope that if you are struggling, you can focus on what matters, that if you need to find the strength to let something fail that you can, and that you can rediscover your purpose as well, and know you can find it all around. Be well!

One thought on “The Unbearable Weight of Intentional Failure – Letting My Students and Myself Fail On Purpose

  1. Lisa Harris says:

    Excellent, thought provoking point of view Christian. Allowing ourself to live in the grey area allows for transition when mentally needed. We often feel the need to put up hard black and white boundaries. Gray space let’s us be more compassionate to ourself.

    Like

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