Never mind, try again, fail better

oops key thumb
I experience my flaws like grains of sand or loose teeth. They bother me and I worry at them absently, out of habit, but over time they’ve become familiar landmarks. Even though I keep wanting to change them, in some way they’re as much a part of how I understand myself as the qualities I like best.

In the “poetry issue” of the zine Mad Cow, which Gutter comics editor Carol Borden and I co-edited in university, we took a poem entitled ‘Loneliness’ by Emma LaRocque and turned it into a kind of Mad Lib:

Ah [Loneliness]
How would I know
Who I am
Without you?

Through the years we’ve filled in that blank with a wide variety of words including Therapy, Bitterness, and one of my personal favorites, Nametag. It sounds like another joke, but in all earnestness it works if you fill it in with Flaws.

I feel like there’s a lesson in a thousand quirky movies that I, in my struggles to do my absolute best at all times, never quite seem to learn: our limitations don’t make us less lovable. They may drive us crazy and make us more irritating, but being flawed is something we all share. We’re all good at this and suck at that. It’s one of the roots of compassion.

Raising ArizonaIt’s also why I’m fond of movies like Raising Arizona or Run Fatboy Run.  The Coen Brothers‘ 1987 comedy, Raising Arizona, stars Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as Hi and Ed, a criminal and a police officer who fall in love and get married but can’t have children. They also can’t adopt due to Hi’s criminal record, so they decide to kidnap one of a set of quintuplets they hear about in the news, contending that five is too many babies to pay good attention to and his parents won’t really miss one. Many, many things go wrong with this plan, but through it all Hi and Ed struggle to do the best thing for Junior, including sneaking him back home when they realize they got it wrong.

run fatboy runRun Fatboy Run stars Simon Pegg as Dennis Doyle, who leaves his pregnant fiancée at the altar and literally runs away down the street. When her new boyfriend brags about a marathon he’s running, Dennis decides to prove he’s not a loser by running it too. The race is full and requires him to enter on behalf of a charity so he attempts to sign up in a variety of underhanded ways, eventually succeeds, and then ends up in a physical fight with the boyfriend during the race. They both get injured, but Dennis refuses to give up and keeps limping along for hours toward the finish line.

Hi, Ed and Dennis are examples of deeply flawed characters who become endearing, and who you end up rooting for and caring about in spite of the terrible choices they make. Protagonists can still end up being sympathetic and lovable even if they do things that are kind of awful. There’s something profoundly relatable about trying but failing to do something good, or doing something that seems like a good idea at the time, or just plain screwing up your life. We don’t have to become perfect, we just have to be willing to try and learn and try again.

Raising Arizona 2I have an acquaintance who periodically comments on how good I am at everything, which sounds like it should be a compliment but always seems to contain an edge of criticism. Once I gave her a shortlist of things I’m not good at: hockey, extemporaneous public speaking, resisting temptation. Her response was to snort and say “Those aren’t real things. You’re just saying that to make the rest of us feel better.”

I can’t say I see how hockey is any less real than the things I’ve learned to do, like quilting or carpentry. I still have a visceral memory of shame when one of the bigger boys in grade school tricked me into passing the puck to him by calling my name even though he wasn’t on my team. Of course that was more about him being a bully, which in retrospect was more about his father being an abusive alcoholic, than any of it was about hockey. I notice that I never did get to be any good at hockey, though.

I also actually had a job where I was required to speak suddenly and unexpectedly in public, often about very controversial subjects, and it’s really not my strength. I confess I was exaggerating a little about resisting temptation. Usually people laugh at that, which is me succeeding at being funny. Instead I ended up feeling like I’d failed to be clever.

I work hard to do a good job of things, but I’ve failed over and over again. I don’t usually feel like my accomplishments are something that makes me better than other people. I’m much more like a dog who keeps eagerly bringing you things because I think you’re awesome and believe they will make you happy. It’s weird to me that I can end up feeling like doing my best makes me less appealing.

What I really want to do a good job of is life, and I think that’s about showing up. Not sucking at things is about practice, dedication, and a willingness to fail and look like a fool. It’s about being emotionally invested enough to risk falling on your face in the mud because it’s worth it to you. I’ve noticed that most failures and heartbreaks I eventually get over, but there doesn’t seem to be any statute of limitations on hating myself for being too much of a coward to take a risk for something I wanted.

run boys runWhatever else you might say about Hi and Ed or Dennis, they really committed to their crazy plans to fix their problems and they were willing to take big risks and pay up to make things right in the end. Even though they definitely messed up along the way, I’d argue that the only point at which they were actually failing was before they started working towards what really mattered to them.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

– Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho


alex MacFadyen has been there for everything he’s ever done or said –
believe him when he says it wasn’t always pretty.

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