I have put this blog off for more than a week. I have written and rewritten it 7 times. I have thought about it and gotten really confused and then emptied my brain and began to think about it again. How do you write about failure, about your own personal failure without embarrassing yourself or being a propagator of TMI? Bear with me. I’m going to write this the only way I can: honestly.
Now that I’m in my 30’s I feel this firm pressure to be at a certain point in my life socially and economically. This feeling becomes more prominent with every wedding invitation I collect, every baby that one of my friends’ pops out, every condo an ex buys and every job promotion one of my university classmates receives. I then realize that I don’t have any of these things and a shadow of failure starts to eclipse me.
Two Sundays’ ago I spent Fathers Day with my family at my cousins engagement party (yes another wedding I’ll soon be attending) and I overheard my Dad saying
“How many people do you know that have got to do things like that with their life at such a young age? I think it’s great!”
He was not talking about my 20-year-old brother whose first job is with Manulife Financial nor my other brother who is 17 and could probably go on to play pro-baseball if he so chose. My Dad was talking about me. He was talking about my travels and he was talking about my choice to take a slightly different path in life.
I embarked – unknowingly – on this path the night I went into cardiac arrest. I was 23 years old and went to bed after celebrating my final university exam with some wine, my mom and my best friend. At 3:25 am my mom awoke to me calling out for her. What began as pleasant maternal memories from younger days when her little girls’ call meant she was needed, soon turned into horrific confusion as my mom discovered me pale as a sheet, drenched in sweat and unconscious. My heart rate was an accelerated 190 beats per minute and I was suffering ventricular tachycardia. After being defibulated back to life and normal sinus cardiac rhythm by paramedics, hospitalized for over a month, undergoing major open heart surgery, taking 4 months to recover and then immediately after that burying my grandmother with whom I had shared a special bond, my perspective on life changed. I no longer had the desire of most young professionals to enclose myself in an office for 10 hours a day, 26 days a month, save all my money just so I could buy a box in the sky that I would probably be in debt for until I wind up in a smaller box in the ground. I didn’t see the point of staying in just one city when I had been granted the freedom that comes with functioning legs and the privilege of first-world income. I wanted to see this world, to know what else was out there, who else was out there. I wanted to know new places, new foods, new languages, new people; to know their stories and to share mine. Nothing makes you more aware of how futile possessions and status are when you are locked up in a hospital not knowing if you are going to live or die. What matters to you then is survival. So I listened to the doctors, made myself healthy, read as much as I could about geography, culture and politics, bought the first plane ticket, grabbed my camera and embarked down a path that would shape my adult life.
As I sat in my cousin’s backyard that Sunday listening to my Dad talk about me and the 30 some countries I have been to in 30 some years of life, I realized that he was proud. I realized he was proud of my particular brand of success and of how I aimed for something and achieved it fully. In that moment my eclipse of failure receded.
The more I think about it, the more obvious it is how personal both failure and success are. Sure there are the conventional ideals of success, some of which are necessary. However, the things that I now want and envy, like serious relationships, weddings, babies, pay raises and new homes don’t necessarily equal a successful life to everyone. Like traveling, these events only act as marking points along the path of ones’ life. Success is the culmination of received knowledge along that path. There is no precise due date for these marking points and they can’t be bought, only earned. It may have taken 7 years and 5 continents to teach me this invaluable lesson, but I now know with astute clarity what matters to me and how dedicated I am capable of being. When it comes to viewing personal failure, maybe we could all benefit from a slight perspective shift and realize that what is precious in life isn’t monetary but only momentary.