Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Gift of Failure

I was driving home from school today when I heard this story on NPR: "Total Failure: The Mountain That Got Away." (You can listen or read via the link.)

The message stuck with me and kept me in the car, rapt.

It was about a competitive mountain climber, Emily Harrington, and how she'd spent her whole life focusing on winning competitions, on summitting mountains, on being the best and finishing no matter what.

Except she did this one climb, in Myanmar, up Hkakabo Razi. It was a hairy journey just to get to the ridge that led to summit, and she found herself exhausted, food stores low, facing the choice to keep climbing and face death as a consequence, or stop and let it go.

The piece had these lines that spoke to me now, in the midst of abandoning my own uphill struggle:

"But she was exhausted and stretched to the limits of her skill as a climber. She felt that if she went on, she might not make it down. 

'It wasn't my time to keep climbing,' she says.

She turned around. And giving up? It may have been the best thing she ever did. Not just because she didn't fall to her death. 

High up on that ridge, she really understood that life wasn't so simple. There were wrong turns, bad weather and bad luck that were beyond her control. It was OK to give up." 

Could that be more perfect right now or what?

Some things are beyond your control. A lesson I seem completely unable to truly grasp onto and solidify for myself. As I occasionally sit here and get all morose in a sea of what-ifs, of examining all of our decisions (What if we'd gotten a second opinion before doing donor eggs? What if we'd gone to CCRM earlier? What if we'd moved forward with adoption sooner? What if someone could have picked us in June, had we not pulled the plug a bit early?), I have to remember that it doesn't matter how many wrong turns were taken, how many series of unfortunate events occurred so that we found ourselves almost on the trail to the peak, but without any more food, too exhausted to trust our footing, and unsure of health (physical and mental) if we were to continue.

Life isn't so simple as Prepare, Train, Do, Succeed. I wish it was.

I love this article because it doesn't extol the NeverNeverNEVER Give Up mentality that is so prevalent. It acknowledges that sometimes, giving up is necessary in order to continue on. That you can learn from that lesson of "This didn't work out for me" or even failure, which I hate using as a synonym for our experience, but it's true...we failed at having a child through every single means that we tried. I feel a little like we failed adoption, but I know that isn't true. Our infertility history going into adoption made every bump in the road feel like a mountain. We'd spent so much time getting to the mountain base that we had no energy to get to the summit after it wasn't quite as straightforward as we thought it was going to be.

So we let go of our dream, when it started to consume us and our health became collateral damage. We let go so that we could keep on climbing another day, on a different mountain. So that we could accept that some things are out of our control, and things don't always go the way you hope or plan. But there is always space for a new plan, a new adventure. (Probably not actually mountain climbing because I am terrified of heights, which is probably going to be an issue when we're driving the Pacific Coast Highway this summer...)

Here's to failure. Here's to knowing when to stop even when it is hard and against all of your work ethic philosophy to do so, but you are literally running yourself into the ground trying over and over and finding no success. Here's to all the new adventures that lie ahead, because we let this one go after a long slog of wrong turns and mishaps that seemed neverending. We did our best, and now we move on -- we'll carry our loss with us but we'll be able to move forward, up another mountain, towards another future that we'll figure out together.


  1. My favorite part you said was, "We let go so that we could keep on climbing another day, on a different mountain. So that we could accept that some things are out of our control, and things don't always go the way you hope or plan. But there is always space for a new plan, a new adventure."

    I feel it speaks to me and the spirit of the name of my blog and its tagline. It is hard to let go and dream new dreams. Sometimes the doing whatever it takes is about making your happy with what you do have.

    Amazing how stories, people or experiences like the one you described with the radio show drop into your life just when you really need it. Glad you were so open to hear and own its wisdom. It really is a great story on so many levels. Thank you for sharing it!

  2. I love this so much. This is a post I will bookmark and return to again and again. Sometimes stopping is not only the best choice, it is also the sane choice. We celebrate people who make risky decisions that (usually through luck) pay off, but what we really should be celebrating are the people who make the sound decisions, weighing the worth of a life. She clearly valued her life above all else, which, when you think about it, is as it should be. Glory be damned, it doesn't mean a whole lot if you're dead.

  3. I've been reflecting on this post all morning. Both as it triggered memories of rock climbing (too many I knew have died from this sport) but also from the "never give up" perspective when it comes to all things in life. There's benefit with encouraging people to push through the hard moments, but we as a society have completely gone the other direction on this to the point we don't allow for failure at all. And that's actually insanely damaging.

    Some of the most instrumental moments in my life have come from failure. It's always hard to deal with, the disappointment, the anger, the grief, from those moments. But knowing how to handle failure, to reset and reassess, to see the other road and go down it, has been an invaluable life skill that has lead to some amazing things. That's not acknowledged. Instead to promote sacrificing everything for the one goal, advocating that people spend themselves for things they cannot change or our out of their control. And what is left when they come to the end of that road? Usually a lot of misery and disappointment for very different reasons.

    A lot to process here. And it sounds like you are in the thick of processing. Metaphoresis involves that, with the crystallization of new limbs and body as the old one dissolves away. Thinking of you as you continue

  4. What an adapt analogy. Sounds like you heard it at the right time too. I remember reading once that the idea that we should keep going until we succeed and anything is possible if we just try hard enough, can actually be very detrimental! It's not possible for everyone to be better than average and to succeed so for some people they have to accept whatever it is isn't for them and walk away.

  5. I think this is the best thing you have written about ending your adoption process. Sometimes we all need to say no. Not because we give up but because we must say yes to something else.

  6. Very thought provoking as usual. I agree with you and the other commenters here: you can gain a lot from pushing through, but you can also gain a lot from walking away. The point is not to do one or the other as a matter of habit but to make a choice. When you were trying to build your family you gave your all: every effort was made! But when things didn't work out, you were able to pick a different path. That shows a lot of self awareness and wisdom and I think it means you will have a very good life, even though this part of it is hard.

  7. I love this post and this analogy. It made me think of Everest, and Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air," and how many people died on the mountain that day because they were determined to reach the summit, even though they knew it was getting late and darkness and freezing temperatures and bad weather were upon them. Sometimes "giving up" can be the smartest thing you'll ever do. Glad this came along at the right time for you!

  8. I love randomly hearing things or reading things just when you need it. It's funny how that just happens.

    Also, unknown is totally right: "Sometimes we all need to say no. Not because we give up but because we must say yes to something else." THIS.

  9. I'm so glad you can see inspiration in this story. There is real wisdom and maturity in this, rather than the blithe, sometimes unthinking "never give up"message that usually comes from those who have never had to face the reality of making that final decision – or of having it essentially made for you. Hugs.

  10. Jess, this post is an absolute knock-out. This is wisdom. Joy is where you find it, in your own way, in your own time. And you will.

  11. Like others have said, this is one of those "bookmark" posts to hang onto in the category of "truths about life". So true and so well written. Like Loribeth, I also thought of the Krakauer book when I was reading this post and the difference between the disaster Krakauer recounts (yes, people got to the summit in Krakauer's case, but, in many cases, at the cost of their lives) and Harrington's wise decision that allowed her to live to climb another day. Recognizing limits is a hard thing and people who do so are rarely given the credit they deserve for their wisdom.

    Thank you for sharing this!