Knowing the Taste of Failure

failure

(This piece is also featured in Converge Magazine.)

On the day I got married five and a half years ago, my wife-to-be slipped my wedding ring over the fourth finger of my left hand. It was loose--we hadn't sized it properly before the wedding, and so it jostled back and forth between my other fingers. Even after we resized it later, it always seemed a little big, a little heavy. I was always trying to keep it from sliding off my finger, especially when it was wet. Conversely, when I put the ring on her finger that day, I remember having to push. It fought me the whole way. There's even a picture of me as I jokingly went to my knees to try to work it past her knuckle.

***

It was the pre-dawn of a cold, winter morning last year when I placed my ring down on the dresser. I tried my best to lay the ring down gently without a sound, but it seemed so heavy. It felt like it had grown so much heavier since the first day I put it on. My fingers parted with the cold metal--it had been off my finger for hours--and I left it sitting there on top of a folded piece of paper, a note I had spent most of the night wrestling with and writing. The letter underneath the ring was part anger and part sadness. Part indignation and part heartbreak. Part resignation and part hope.

That was the beginning of the end of my marriage.

***

If I could rewind six years and allow a twenty-two-year-old me to read what I just wrote, I know what the reaction would be:

"That's never going to happen. Never."

If I were to ask myself a follow-up question--Why not?--the younger me would look at the older me with an unblinking stare, with fire in his eyes and say:

"I won't let it."

He would mean it with all of his heart, all of his mind, all of his strength, and all of his soul. He would bet his life on those words. He would run into the flames with little regard for his safety.

It's hard to believe that was six years ago. It feels like a lifetime. The last twelve months alone have completely reconstructed my life and my trajectory. There's no way around it--2013 was the year I was thrown into the den, with failure licking its lips and sharpening its claws, ready to feast. Nothing feels more like failure than a failed marriage.

***

To be honest, my marriage had always been difficult. We never had a honeymoon phase. Never a period of time at which I could point and say, “I wish we could go back to that. It was nice.” We had moments, yes — to paint it all as “bad” would be completely unfair. But we had been dancing dangerously close to the edge of the cliff almost right away and spent most of our marriage trying to avoid the fall. I always felt the fear of a potential “end,” its breath always on my neck.

Nothing prepares you for the end, though. Nothing softens the blow or prevents the air from being knocked out of your lungs when you realize it’s over. Falling in love, being married, having this partner and best friend to run through life together…that was my ultimate dream. More than any other dream, this one is what my heart and soul chased after. The death of this dream left me “in a barren field frozen with snow,” confused and numb.

Failure would especially make its presence known at night, in the form of insomnia. It would pull the covers up and let the cold air scratch and gnaw at my feet. The hard, sober reality of my situation became my pillow. In my many bouts of sleeplessness, I’d crank my music, marathon a show on Netflix, write furiously, read every self-help resource. Whatever it took to avoid the thought that always seemed to knock on the door:

This can’t be my story.

***

My marriage, and the ending of it, became the most unacceptable failure I could imagine. It tested every fiber of my being, every ounce of my faith, everything I believed about love and hope.

Somehow, I’m still here, standing on the other side as the dust settles. The pain has given way to some moments of clarity, though, that have bubbled their way to the surface in the last twelve months. These are the thorny, jagged truths that I’ve been forced to embrace: That I can’t make someone love me or want to be married to me. That I can’t fix every situation with my determination, skills, strength, or charisma. That I’m not strong enough to endure everything.

Each one stung and bled me out, but that last one became the most difficult to accept. At the very least, if I can’t fix this, if I can’t push this rock, if I can’t scream or cry or laugh or love or hug or hurt this into something better, I can endure. Surely it’s the least I can do.

It’s a very telling thing to have your father grieve with you on the phone and tell you that you’ve become physically and emotionally sick, that he’s concerned you can’t make it much longer like this.

It’s a very humbling thing to sit across the table from your father-in-law, whom you love and admire and respect, who gave you the responsibility of loving and taking care of his precious daughter, and look at him through your blurred, wet, weary eyes, and whisper, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m not strong enough.”

***

When I finally accepted defeat, I also had to accept the fact that life often doesn’t fit into the neat boxes we’ve prepared for it. I never grew up wanting to be divorced. In fact, I went most of my life despising divorce, looking down on it and anyone who would do such a thing. How weak, I thought. How convenient of them to take the easy way outDon’t they care about their vows?  Yet here I am, shaking my head at my own sheltered, sterile ignorance and afraid that the same thoughts I used to think, the same knives I used to sharpen, are being aimed in my direction by the people who know me. How messy life can be. How tricky. How easily we can find ourselves in the midst of a detour we never intended to take.

Life is supposed to be this linear equation, isn’t it? Go to school + meet someone + fall in love + get a job + get married + buy a house + have kids + read the Bible + be a good person = happily ever after.

I suspect I’m not the only one who has found himself on the outside of that equation looking in, lacking one or more of the necessary variables. So many of us have either lost an x, broken a y, or waited on a z that never bothered to show up in the first place.

I’ve found that life isn’t all about the polished, framed family photo on the mantel, the perfectly paved road, the slow-melt hugs and the puzzle-piece kisses. Life is also fracture and fighting, wilderness and wandering, bruises and scars left behind by different people in our lives or even our own selfish actions.

That combination doesn’t fit into a clean equation. But what if life is less formula and more poetry: full of surprise, of colour, of meaning, of complexity? It has the ability to weave together beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain. It doesn’t discount you when you deviate from the plotted course. It often makes something even more beautiful out of your detour. Life isn’t a clean-cut, straight line. That much is obvious when you look back at anyone’s life, successful or not. I know this now. I think.

***

Still, how do you truly recover when you’ve launched toward the highest expectations and loftiest dreams, when you’ve reached for them but you never came close, when you’ve hurtled back toward the ground and found yourself in a smoldering heap of scraps? How do you come back from that?

Little by little. By deciding to live life. By eating outrageous amounts of ice cream. By watching When Harry Met Sally at 2 a.m. By allowing friends into your brokenness. By wrestling with what it means to forgive and be forgiven. By continuing to believe that dreams are worth chasing. By nurturing the tiniest seed of faith that God can grow a bigger, stronger, more vibrant tree out of your ashes.

I am OK, most of the time. I’m healing. I’m moving forward. Slowly, the fog begins to thin out a bit more. I can feel the glow of tomorrow on my face, and I’m drinking in today.

Instead of failure, all I taste is hope.