Failure: my greatest fear & my greatest gift

“So my name is Rachel Cason, and I’m a failure”.

This was how I felt like introducing myself yesterday. Complete with aggressive self-loathing and topped with misery and embarrassment.

I had failed my driving test. Halfway through it I failed to see and respond to the actions of the driver ahead of me, and probably frightened my examiner half to death. I somehow managed to complete the rest of the test competently, but my ultimate failure was made worse by the fact that my examiner was convinced, due to my otherwise tolerable driving, that I had seen the danger ahead and simply taken a chance. So I had failed. AND I had been misunderstood.

This is such a ‘double-whammy’. I am a Third Culture Kid, and have grown up working frantically to try to work out the rules of every new cultural environment I found myself in. The environments changed fairly often, so I was kept on my toes, hoping that I’d somehow ‘pass’ in the context. Failure was being ‘found out’ to not really belong. But the salt in the wound was to be misunderstood. When my shyness was interpreted as aloofness. When my accent was interpreted as belonging to a different country and class than my own. When my mode of humour suggested unintended cruelty or facetiousness.

The best part of my life has been spent trying to avoid both Failure and Misunderstanding. And I’ve done well. Too well probably. I remember when my daughter was in Reception/Kindergarten. They had a discipline system that started children off on the ‘sun’, and wanted behaviour was rewarded with progression through ‘rainbow’ and ‘shooting star’, while unwanted behaviour was met with a downgrading through ‘white cloud’ and then ‘rain cloud’. She was never on the cloud. She was mostly on the rainbow, to the extent that the sun just wasn’t good enough. I remember hoping and unexpected hope: that she would one day be put on the cloud. I wanted her anxiety about the system to be allayed… I wanted her to know that being put on the cloud was something she could survive. That perceived failure was normal, that she was normal, and that it was okay to miss her mark sometimes. That her value was intrinsic, rather than tied up in to behavioural expectations. Then one day, she got onto the cloud. And she survived.

My daughter, like me, expected Failure to disconnect her from the people and experiences that mattered to her. Instead, my daughter experienced cuddles, verbal expressions of love (and boundaries!) and the knowledge that her teachers’ care for her remained constant and unconditional, just like mine.

And me? My failure to pass my driving test connected me to an acquaintance also sitting her exam that day. We hugged, shared in our mutual mortification (she had also failed), and I now know her name. I failed a test and gained a friend. My failure, once I had the courage to share it, gifted me the loving support of many friends, who (get this!) willingly shared with me their own stories of failure. I had failed a test and gained loving community. I had wanted to hide the fact I was even sitting my test from my family, friends and my partner. To avoid shame, and frankly, so that when I passed, it would seem like ‘no big deal’. Heaven forbid I look like I actually have to work for success (!) But I’d slipped, let them all know… and my mortification was met with love. Love big enough to handle my irrational, out-of-proportion misery and self-loathing. Love big enough to connect. I failed a test, and was gifted love.

“So my name is Rachel Cason, and I’m a failure”

We all fear failure. But, if we have the courage to share our failures, we are gifted friendship, community and love. Failure is a gift. One I’m going to try and cherish just a little more. Here’s to the next test!

 

4 comments

  1. Linda Harvey Kelley says:

    I failed my first driving test in the USA, too. And when I got out of the car afterwards, my legs wouldn’t work, and I fell flat on the pavement. It was my first time to drive with a man in the car, and in Papua New Guinea men did not want women to drive. I was so scared my legs were paralyzed with fear. My next driving test was in the capitol city in Papua New Guinea, and I passed.

    • Dr. Rachel Cason says:

      Wow, this is brilliant! Yes, our cultural experiences of driving matter! I felt very strange driving off with a strange man in the car… perhaps most people would. But the fact that I grew up not allowed to sit next to a man in a car must have added a layer to the experience. I’m so glad you were able to pass in an environment with which you were more familiar!

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