Failure – What’s in a word? Part 1

extreme fear

Not too long ago, after returning from a long evening walk – a common habit of mine at the time -, I wrote down the following words:

I want to write about loneliness. No, I need to write about loneliness. Feelings unexplored are like wounds left untreated. They morph into something frightening that cannot be controlled; haunting and alienating, they don’t seem to leave us alone and linger on. Unwanted, disobedient. (the longer essay can be read here)

It had been a particularly difficult time in my life and I was struggling to process my feelings. Again and again, I found that, rather dishearteningly, my thoughts drifted to the sentiment of ‘failure’. To my dismay, even after the passing of time, the word / affect does not want to leave me and seems to taunt and poke at me whenever opportunity presents itself. Therefore, I want to write about it, and through writing learn to be in a healthier relationship with this vexingly ambiguous thing / word we call / experience as failure.

The word and ‘world’ of failure is perhaps not an unfamiliar one. It is bound to stir up, in many of us, particular experiences, memories and emotions that may be difficult to come to terms with or to understand. What is perhaps, so I would argue, a common feature is that we, who think or experience failure, seek an answer in our ‘self’: what did we do wrong, how are we lacking and why am I a failure by ‘failing’? We interrogate ourselves harshly and this, I believe, falsely so. We do ourselves a great injustice and disservice. Here, I would like to explore this further and bring into conversation various themes that will allow me to, especially in part 2, make the point that failure is not only desirable in certain situations but is, as Judith Halberstam writes in her book, The Queer Art of Failure, a creative and revolutionary act.

So, on to failure… let’s unpack it in some detail.

Words are things

“Words are things”, tells us activist, writer and poet Maya Angelou. “You must be careful about the words you use or the words you allow to be used in your house”. We are all familiar with the rhyme that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’. Not true writes poet Shane Koyczan:

“…as if broken bones hurt more than the names we got called,and we got called them all.So we grew up believing no one would ever fall in love with us,that we’d be lonely forever… so broken heartstrings bled the blues, and we tried to empty ourselves so we’d feel nothing.Don’t tell me that hurt less than a broken bone,that an ingrown life is something surgeons can cut away,that there’s no way for it to metastasize; it does…”

Words have power and pack punches way beyond their apparent ‘size’. In her poem, Angelou compares racial and sexual pejoratives to poisons that “get on the walls…in your wallpaper….in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.” Toxic purveyors of hurt; noxious architects of prejudice, avoidance, rejection, discrimination, oppression. Words-as-things can beat and bully us into lonely, lonely places; places of cold isolation, pain and nagging self-doubt. Understandable then that an emphasis on political correctness is strong, albeit contested.

The World in a Word

“The other speaks a word, and I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world” wrote French linguist, philosopher and literary theorist Ronald Barthes. Like Angelou, he believed in the power of words and discourse to impact us deeply. Barthes dabbled in the field of semiotics: the study of meaning-making and the philosophy of signs and symbols.

Words may be considered simplifying symbols for experiences too complex, nuanced and elaborate to be well captured by language: a whole other world crafted and given meaning to in the furnace of human history, stretching to and into the present. Words as signs or sign-posts may, however, orient us in particular ways, pointing toward some things and away from others. What do they point to? What happens when we ‘follow them around?’

Words, and here I am referring specifically to pejoratives, are emotionally and cognitively anchored to and are reminders off historic and present-moment lived experiences that stand as testaments to the cruelty of human (inter)action where dominant groups in society establish(ed) their identity in positive contrast to the identity of a lesser ‘Other’, free thereby to pursue, name and subjugate with little qualm. Pull back the curtain on hate filled words and what stands revealed is a world that not only stretches back for centuries, but that continues to this day to produce and replicate oppression in its myriad of forms; experiences born from and in this world are legion and reveal again and again the implications of a politics of ‘better/lesser than’.

Consider, for example, Caleb Luna’s article on ‘On Being Fat, Brown, Femme, Ugly, and Unlovable:

“Ugly is how I move through the world, how I am viewed by strangers, coworkers, potential lovers, employers, family, community members, doctors, professors, service industry workers, et cetera, and this perception affects how I am treated daily. I have been denied job opportunities because of my body. I do not fit into restaurant booths, airplane seats, or school desks comfortably—which serves as a constant reminder that this world was not built to accommodate me… How do I love myself in a world that tells me I am not lovable?”

Or, the following excerpt from Derald Wing Sue’s Microaggressions study:

“It get’s tiring, you know. It sucks you dry. People don’t trust you. From the moment I wake up, I know stepping out the door, that it will be the same, day after day. The bus can be packed, but no one will sit next to you… you get served last… when they serve you, they have this phony smile and just want to get rid of you … you have to show more ID to cash a check, you turn on the TV and there you always see someone like you, being handcuffed and jailed. They look like you and sometimes you begin to think it is you! You are a plague! You try to hold it in, but sometimes you lose it…” (African American male)

Or the short video project: ‘Shit Canadians say to Aboriginal Women’, drawing attention to the abuse and victimization Aboriginal women face as a result of negative stereotypes in Canadian culture. Beware: a terrible onslaught of words!

Welcome to the widening gyre of Yeats’ Second Coming, where things – speak lives, speak people – fall and are made to fall apart, where innocence is drowned and nightmares stare back and haunt people from within words and words as worlds that pierce and cut like knives.

Insults and Invalidations

Consider the studies explored by psychologist Derald Wing Sue in his book Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Here, Sue documents how not only overt and obvious forms of discrimination (e.g. racism, sexism and homophobia), but also less obvious and visible, what he calls micro-insults and micro-invalidations, can have significant and detrimental impacts on the mental and physical health, quality of life, self-esteem, and identity of targeted individuals or groups.

Micro-insults represent: “subtle snubs, frequently outside the conscious awareness of the perpetrator, that convey an oftentimes hidden insulting message to the recipient”; they convey stereotypes, rudeness, insensitivity and may demean a person’s racial, gender, or sexual orientation, heritage or identity. Words, as carriers of insults, are intimately tied to such aggressions. Closely related micro-invalidations are “characterized by communications or environmental cues that exclude, negate or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of certain groups”. In doing so, they have the power to impose a reality or identity upon individuals that is not of their own choosing and may be internalized; for Sue, the ultimate form of oppression. Performer and activist Panti Noble agrees: listen here about her experience with invalidation and Orwellian tricks.

“We seldom realize that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society”, so Allan Watts.

To clarify, comments such as “Everyone has an equal chance in this society,”; “The cream of the crop rises to the top”; “Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough”; “Affirmative action is reverse racism”, potentially imply, so Sue, that racism, sexism and heterosexism is of little importance in a group’s or individual’s success. Since we know that this is not the case, it is easy to see how any articulation that points to systemic inequality is thereby – through such statements – neatly erased or invalidated. Bitch in Business, a parody of Meghan Trainor’s song ‘All about that bass’, tackles common micro-aggression experienced by women in the workforce and rewrites the narrative.

Stigma and mental health

A powerful example of an invalidation is stigma. People that are struggling with a mental health condition, for example, are often also facing an additional heavy challenge of stigma and stigma induced behavior; public misperceptions and fears about what mental ‘illness’ is and the people that experience it, create / maintain stereotypes and labels: people are depicted as dangerous, violent, unstable and unpredictable; news stories often sensationalize, generalize or are blatantly wrong. And yet, discrimination based on stigma creates very real barriers in that people are often excluded from housing, employment, insurance or appropriate medical care.

Not only do stigmas cause needless suffering and discrimination, they may also cause a person to deny symptoms, delay treatment or refrain from daily activities that demand social interaction; one may be ashamed of being in a ‘category’ that ‘normal’ and well-adjusted society looks down upon; depression? What depression! I am fine! … until I jump: consider, for example, the stigma that the strong, silent male faces when experiencing or going through moments of fragility; what anxiety? What depression! Consider the world behind the word…

Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human (excerpt)

“There is a lack of synchronicity between our society and people with disabilities. A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.”

Becca Shaw Glaser’s Activism, Suicide, and Survival: Healing the Unhealable (excerpt)

“If the hospital hadn’t released him after a week. If insurance companies didn’t determine our medical care. If the antidepressants had worked. If the gun store hadn’t given him the gun. If Maine participated in federal background checks for recent mental health institutionalizations. If the culture embraced all emotions equally. If there were no demons. If we had known. If if if if if if if.”

Shane Koyczan’s To this Day: (excerpt)

“He was three when he became a mixed drink of one part left alone and two parts tragedy, started therapy in eighth grade, had a personality made up of tests and pills, lived like the uphills were mountains and the downhills were cliffs, four fifths suicidal, a tidal wave of antidepressants, and an adolescence being called “Popper,” one part because of the pills, 99 parts because of the cruelty. He tried to kill himself in grade 10 when a kid who could still go home to Mom and Dad had the audacity to tell him, “Get over it.” As if depression is something that could be remedied by any of the contents found in a first aid kit. To this day, he is a stick of TNT lit from both ends, could describe to you in detail the way the sky bends in the moment before it’s about to fall, and despite an army of friends who all call him an inspiration, he remains a conversation piece between people who can’t understand sometimes being drug-free has less to do with addiction and more to do with sanity.”

When complex individuals are reduced to symptoms and pathological syndromes, their personal and special life stories are misunderstood and we do them a great injustice; violence even. So argues Ron Bassman, whose reflections recount his story of being involuntarily committed with paranoid schizophrenia, surviving and leaving the institution “cured of my grandiose notions, no longer paranoid, no delusions, no hallucinations, huge gaps in my memory, slowed in thought and movement, and without even the energy to contemplate who I was, what I had become or what possibilities, if any, the future offered”; cured yet broken. His diagnosis and inhumane treatment, the result of narrow-minded, stigma infused thinking. It took him years to recover.

He is now a licenced psychologist, has spent more than forty years studying what he calls “extreme and diverse mental states” and continues to advocate for a more expansive empathetic language when considering mental health conditions and the people behind these. Words, or stigma-as-words, he knows only too well, can place people in very constricting boxes with little or no room to breathe.

Enter The Icarus Project, a “support network and media project by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness”. In what I believe to be a truly inspiring vision statement, the group enshrines:

“The Icarus Project seeks to overcome the limitations of a world determined to label, categorize, and sort human behavior. We envision a new culture that allows the space and freedom for exploring different states of being, and recognizes that breakdown can be the entrance to breakthrough. We aim to create a language that is so vast and rich that it expresses the infinite diversity of human experiences. We demand more options in understanding and navigating emotional distress and we want everyone to have access to these options, regardless of status, ability, or identity.”

Icarus Project co-founder Jacks McNamara, for example, in the documentary film Crooked Beauty, rewrites the narrative surrounding her diagnosis of ‘bipolar disorder’ in favor of a rethinking that introduces a more expansive, alternative vocabulary of ‘living with a broken heart.’ This stands as an important reminder that power – the power to define and redefine – while often monopolized in the hands of an entrenched few (think institutional, systemic power), does percolate within all of us.

It is possible to redefine, and as Judith Halberstam articulates in the fascinating book The Queer Art of Failure, to situate oneself critically vis a vis the ‘norm’ or the ‘status quo’ and bring about an ‘unbeing’ and ‘unbecoming’: other worlds or words as worlds that offer more creative, more cooperative, and more surprising ways of being are possible.

This concludes part 1 of my discussion on what I have broadly conceptualized as ‘failure’. Why I am referring to ‘failure’, and why failure may actually be – if one can appropriate the word – a revolutionary and creative word / act, will start to make more sense when in part 2, I delve more deeply into the sentiment expressed so well by Jiddu Krishnamurti’s phrase: “It is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”

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