“Fail better worse now.”
—Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho”
You might be familiar with a much more famous line from this same book. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” This phrase first gained notoriety when it was pulled out of context and used in Tim Ferris’ “The 4-day Work Week.” It has since been a rallying call for the creative class, an obvious slogan for the we’re all winners generation. As long as you try, that’s all that counts. Nope, that’s not all that counts, and that’s not what Beckett was getting at, and there is nothing comforting about his intentions.
What is it that motivates you? Me? Anyone? We all ask ourselves this, right? Why any of it? And it creeps up on you, this question of existence, it has a tendency to hit you from the blindside. You’re just swimming along in the placid waters of modern life and a wham, out of nowhere, existential shark attack. It can happen anywhere, at anytime: in line for ice cream, brushing your teeth, mowing the lawn; but the likelihood of an attack increases with anxiety, those pensive moments at the ATM, reading international news stories, or failing at an expedition in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In these instances the ability to avoid asking ourselves, “Why do we do what we do?” is not easily accomplished. What was far below, cruising beneath layers of the blissfully quotidian, has come up to stalk near the surface, and when a confrontation with this leviathan of relevancy strikes, no matter how hard I fight, inevitably I am defeated. No answers are forthcoming, what am I doing? WHAT AM I DOING? But I expect this to change, I hope for change, even when I have no proof that it will. Is this the definition of insanity so famously attributed to Einstein? “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
“Do I really expect anything different to come from these ideological investigations? Yes, yes I do. Is it absurd to believe this? Yes, yes it is. What then does this have to do with hiking/not hiking a bike over the Sierra Nevada? Everything.”
For me the success and failure of an undertaking has a direct effect on my sense of self. As a child of the ‘80s I, like many of you, have been forced to deal with the unfortunate consequences of the self-esteem initiative, the everyone is a winner project, a pedagogical timebomb that has been more or less in a constant state of explosion since my early adolescence. Having every Tom, Dick, and Harry there to tell you that you were a winner, that you are great, that you earned a little gold star by your name just for breathing is a crock. When you grow old, stop being cute, stop being so conveniently malleable, reality sets in. Those who so eloquently sung your praises–the magnificence of your finger paintings, the effortless grace of your athleticism, the brilliance of your LEGO constructions–have long forgotten who you are. “Fend for yourself in the woods of the world little child, you’re on your own.”
Concurrently the idea of winning, of self satisfaction, of contentment, morphs; it becomes more nuanced, opaque, untenable. Winning it seems, in the sense that the term equals existential satisfaction, is not a common thing regularly doled out, but a rare fleeting event, slippery and elusive. That’s why it is special, that’s what makes it so worthwhile, and to capture a sense of it, I am willing to jeopardize a banal but tolerable lifestyle of complacency. To discover a better sense of why I do anything, I am willing to put my generic satisfaction at stake. That’s why we adventure; sure the pictures are great, but deep down doing things that are really hard to do, are the things that give us a glimpse of who we actually are, they strip bare our souls–whatever that means–and we get to eyeball our consciousness. If just for a moment.
We planned a trip with a handful of bad asses. These folks are the real deal, competitors, winners, people who don’t give up, people who seek out a challenge, look for a fight, love the battle. The trip starts and everything is going well—until the section where we take apart the bikes we were riding and add them to the traveling homes we are carrying on our backs. We have made the decision to hike with this setup into/over some of the tallest mountains in the United States. And we all did, for a while, we all reached the high point, and when we looked down into the valley and the twenty-plus more miles over which we would still have to travel, there in front of us was a looming, ugly, black cloud vomiting chunks of icy spittle. At this point just over half of our crew had reached the summit and two others were still making their way to the top. We waited, chilling with a giant golden squirrel and cowering in the cold, but mostly we talked about the path ahead, we talked about the mileage, the weather, the fact that everything is failing. Our gear was breaking—straps snapping, lashes tearing, attachment points unattaching—and my hands had gone numb because the weight of my bag had cut off the blood/nerves/life that my hands, like all hands, and like the rest of my body, like all bodies, needed to function.
“We decide to turn around. We decide to discontinue our trip. We choose to fail.”
The point of this, the existential shark attack metaphor, the words, the characters, the punctuation points, is to tell you that we didn’t want to quit, we didn’t want to fail. The point is to let you know that this isn’t our M.O., failure isn’t what I put as one of my skills on LinkedIn (to be fair I wouldn’t put winner as a skill either). We weighed our options and we took account of the conditions. We took account of whatever fear, whatever potential disasters we were sure would happen and we walked down. That night we camped within sight of the pass, we had reached the top of it but we wouldn’t continue.
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance? I think I have pitched my tent squarely over the middle three. There is a feeling of responsibility, to myself and to the others on the trip, and this is only magnified in retrospect. What if I packed differently, brought different gear, just stuck it out. What if I wasn’t a quitter? What if I wasn’t a failure? What if, what if? There are those who say things happen for a reason, but I believe it was reason that kept me from going on, reason poisoned my motivation. No, I don’t want to believe in reason, I want to believe in the tenacious, the determined, the obstinate, like the one who went on without us. The one who made it on his own. The one who won.