When I Fail

Wright Brothers Aircraft

“No matter what you do you need to be able to fail and know how to recover from it in order to one day succeed.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson—

The greatest lessons I’ve learned in life didn’t come about through my successes, but through my failures. Our failures force us to examine ourselves. In those moments when we are too stubborn to acknowledge that we’ve failed, the universe kindly allows us to fail again at the same task, the same effort, the same thing. “As you were,” says Mother Nature.

Right. As you were.

Failure finds us through many shades: failure to complete a task, to win at something, to successfully overcome, or even to comply with the norms of society–to name a few. Some of us view failure as something to be shunned and ignored, and like an ostrich with its head in the sand, failure is mentally blocked out. Still others view their failures as proof of a lack of worthiness. How we choose to see our failures has everything to do with how we experience these moments in life.

I know guys here who’ve spent a lifetime reinforcing their failures. And now incarcerated, they repeat well entrenched life patterns. When they encounter failure they are quick to blame others. Do you know someone like this?

However, what if we chose to view our failures as opportunities or as tuition paid for a valuable life experience? What if that painful experience of failure is Mother Nature’s way of saying, “You are worthy. I’ve allowed you to fail in order for you to grow.”

One of the things incarceration teaches you is that failure is what you choose it to be. All of us incarcerated souls have failed, the acts we committed are a glaring daily reminder. These past mistakes don’t have to define you, but if you think you are defeated by failure, then defeated you shall be.

There was a time when I viewed my failures as an indication of self worth. I hid my feelings under layers of anger that I projected upon those around me. I chose to see failure as something bad, and so it was.

When I was a boy living in Japan, I took Judo and I swam on the U.S. Embassy Swim Team. When I failed to place in a judo match, I saw it as humiliating failure. When I lost in a swim meet, I told myself it was because I was no good. But what is failure? Is failure about not coming in “first” place? Is it about not placing at all?

Then, when I was a teen back in the States, I ran track in high school. The one track meet that my father came to watch I ran the 70 yard hurdles. I had never run the hurdles. Not yesterday. Not today. Not ever. The hurdles were for boys who were giraffes in other lives, boys whose strides equaled two of mine, but on that day for whatever reason, coach put me in to run. Why? Maybe it was because I ran the 100 and the 220 and 440, all of which are distances for the fastest of boys. But the hurdles? I wanted so badly to say no, please coach I can’t do it, I’m just a small boy–but I didn’t. Why? Because I knew Dad was watching. So I ran.

I promptly finished last.

I felt I had failed miserably. For years after I had hoped Dad would come to another track meet where I could redeem myself by showing him how fast I really was, but Dad never did come back to watch.

For a long time I secretly went out into the fields and woods around our house and ran. Why? I don’t know. Maybe to prove to myself I was fast or maybe subconsciously I was trying to prove to myself I was worthy.

I ran along dirt trails, and through tall Summer grasses. I outran stray dogs and feral cats. I ditched the angriest of bees and I outran spitting possums. Then, one day I found myself alone in an open field where the Summer grass was low and the path straight and smooth. The wind pushed hard at my back and I took off. The boys in my gym class once asked me how I could get my legs to move so fast. I shrugged, having never really thought about it, and I said, “I just do.” On that day I caught the wind and for a distance we were one. I knew then I had to have been a cheetah in another life.

There comes a time in all of our lives where we are faced with that one moment of incredible stinging failure. It’s a moment when you’re at your lowest point, where darkness has gathered around you and the sky above has wallpapered over with angry clouds. It’s when you are no longer able to blame anyone else for your failures but yourself. Perhaps you, Devoted Reader, know what I’m talking about?

I still fail from time to time, but they are moments that rarely register in any negative way now. I see them as life lessons, and I simply keep moving forward. For us inmates, part of the journey toward the path of rehabilitation is about overcoming failure. By refusing to examine ourselves, we guarantee a future of inevitables. But, when we choose to accept and learn from our failures, the path forward becomes clear. Both for inmates, and for those of you who are free reading my words.

Today is a blessing in disguise.


5 thoughts on “When I Fail

  1. KP

    Have you ever examined the differences between “Prison” and “Correctional Facilities”? The writer/creator of Orange is the new Black, Piper Kerman and her fellow speaker, Rachel Kushner, spoke at an event recently stating that there are in fact not many prisons across america and that Ohio only boasts 3 or 4 prisons, and stated that the term “rehabilitation” is a joke. I, for one, do not agree with them and find that it could stand some clarification between the terms.

    1. I think what Piper Kerman and Rachel Kushner are implying when they say there are only a handful of “prisons”, they are referring to facilities like the Youngstown, OH super-max complex, the old Mansfield Prison (Shawshank was filmed there), and perhaps the high security Lucasville, Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF). All other ‘prisons’ in their eye aren’t prisons because they share a dual mandate, to rehabiltate in addition to punish. And since they don’t believe in this aspect of incarceration, their view of what prison ‘is’ is biased and erroneous. Ironically, every “prison” in OH shares this dual mandate. Perhaps they are looking at it from a stereo-type view where a prison must be a violent, tough and challenging place?
      I’d very much like to continue this conversation with Rachel Kushner or Piper Kerman. Having experienced the violent and difficult atmosphere of high security, and also experienced the transition to minimum and all that it entails to get here, I would respectfully disagree that of OH’s dozens of correctional facilities, few are prisons. All are prisons.
      This entire blog is about the very aspect of incarceration that they say is a joke. I can attest to it, and I know dozens of previously lost men who have found that path to rehabilitation again and are now productive citizens of society. Perhaps they mean to say that the effort toward rehabilitation in some states is a joke, and not taken seriously by authorities? If this is the case I agree. But here in OH, rehabilitation is taken seriously by the corrections department, and it extends into community corrections upon release.


  2. Marija

    Very good and vulnerable post… Some of failures come from trying to prove ourselves to others, we want to be loved and accepted, sometimes we want to be the best… I am a part of Christian Pen Pals ministry and it has been a blessing talking to inmates. I first started it during the Lent of last year when I was in the middle of abuse and I started thinking about Jesus and how He said to visit those in prison. I thought about it, how inmates are abandoned, alone and so was I many times in life. That is how it all started and there is always something to learn from those temporarily behind the bars. So every week we have a chat on that site talking about our friends in prison, sharing ideas, thoughts and just growing in the Lord…
    I write to you from Europe and my friend in US told me about your blog.
    I know every life is precious and has a story to be told.
    These words that you wrote are really something to think about it, but it is the truth… It all depends are we going to see our failues as just that – failures or actually a lesson, a painful way of becoming a better person.

    1. Marija–During the hard times and our darkest hours we grow into who we are today. Sometimes the journey is very painful, but from our pain and suffering we can overcome and emerge strengthened. I’ve had my share of darkness, but don’t we all? It’s how we choose to experience these moments that matter. Thank you Marija for your devotion to Christian Pen Pals ministry. Your kindness and that of everyone at CPP is a blessing to many inmates who wish so much for someone to talk to.


  3. Why has it taken incarceration for some to realize and then admit their mistakes, when that incarcerated person tossed aside all the advice that would have prevented the incarceration?

    What is the relationship between acceptance and rejection when it comes to advice? Or put another way, why does the information that older, wiser and more experienced people dispense to those who are on the wrong track get discarded?

    If you can answer these questions now, why couldn’t they be answered then?

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