Failure

In March of 1832 Frederic Chopin wrote a very polite letter to the concert committee at the Paris Conservatoire, requesting that he be considered for a performance on their concert series. Chopin was artistically lauded by this point in his life, but financially insecure and he really needed the concert fee. The committee turned him down.

I would like to think that the Paris Conservatoire’s committee regretted their decision sometime later! In the same vein, a dozen or so publishing houses rejected the first Harry Potter manuscript and are surely still rueing that decision. History is littered with these kinds of stories, and it’s easy to read about them and marvel at the blindness of decision-makers to real talent. We might shake our heads and chuckle, knowing who got the last laugh, but surely it stung to receive those rejection letters in the first place, and no doubt the recipients had their confidence as artists temporarily shaken.

The beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of penitence in the Christian church which began with Ash Wednesday last week, seems like a great time to think about failure. It’s a season which ends in five weeks with one colossal failure after all – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Spoiler alert, he gets the last laugh.

Not everyone has the gift of summoning entire worlds of magic from their imagination which can be shared with millions of adoring fans, as Chopin and Rowling have. Nor can we show our friends that we’ve risen from the dead. Most of us are fairly normal, workaday sorts who feel our failures deeply by questioning our self-worth. History probably really doesn’t care about our failures, but we likely wouldn’t take much pleasure anyway in knowing that we might be vindicated by history if we persevere and continue to believe in ourselves in the face of all those rejection letters. Speculating about the future isn’t a great use for our energy, but it is good to remember that success and failure are best measured by time.

Unfortunately, I have to toss in a few platitudes about failure, because they do hold a lot of truth. Those hopeful ideas about failure’s capacity to help us appreciate our successes more, to prepare us for the next time we fail, to show us who our real friends are, and to teach us about humility.

If you are still looking for a Lenten discipline, perhaps examining life’s failures through more discerning eyes will prove useful. Certainly more useful than giving up chocolate, which is a short path to failure for some of us anyway.

Chopin was harshly criticized for failing as an orchestral composer, but any of us would be fortunate to fail so beautifully.

Recent news about Big Pharma’s role in creating opioid addiction reminds me that I have left out an essential aspect of failure – the fact that failure is all too often enabled by people (and their institutions) who act out of malice, fear, greed, ignorance, lack of imagination, or pedantic fussiness (Chopin’s request reached the Paris Conservatoire after their deadline). I have to think that causing someone to fail is far worse than failing itself.

My inspiration today is the new biography of Chopin by Alan Walker. I read his three volume biography of Liszt – twice – over the past decade or so and I knew that the quality of research and his writing would not disappoint. I didn’t know that I would enjoy getting to know Chopin as a person so much or that reading a rejection letter from the Paris Conservatoire would make me so angry on his behalf!

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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