When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left
A year ago, almost to the day, my partner of ten years told me he was leaving me.
It wasn’t particularly sudden, but it was pointedly unilateral.
Until that moment, I had achieved everything major I had set out to accomplish in my life. I had my dream job that allowed me to generate new knowledge, create important art, and mentor young people. I lived in a stupidly beautiful place, my friends extended to the far corners of the world, and they were everything I could ask for. There were two special humans in my life, whom I both loved deeply. I was savoring the role of the mentor, the advice-giver, the achiever. I felt grateful but I also felt smug. Living in this world, I felt right about things. Right and superior. I had had it figured out. I was better than you. And I was fucking exhausted.
Something started happening after I got everything I wanted and before I lost my primary relationship. A kind of reckoning. It wasn’t raw or explicit or even mildly confronting. It was a low frequency anxiety, a rumbling that something was perhaps wrong or falling short. It was a dread that I now needed to maintain or what I had. It was unsettling and I ignored it by laughing louder, working harder, and living larger.
The events that took place in my relationship a year ago, almost to the day, brought me to my knees. I scrolled through all your birthday posts and texts feeling sick and numb and fake. I was humbled and deeply ashamed. All my efforts to avoid failure here, failed. A reckoning. This was a point of no return. I could not unfeel the separation from my Omma. I could not unsee my mother’s death. I could not unhear the words, I’m leaving you. I faced a choice. I could double down and cling to the truths I believed in about who I was and what brought me success. It had all worked pretty well, until it didn’t. I could keep using what I had used in the past to fix me, to fix this, to figure out what went wrong and do what I needed to do to make sure it never happened again.
But this didn't feel sustainable to me. Or particularly authentic. And it failed to honor the reality that no matter what we do or who we are, loss is a part of our human experience. It was much more devastating, but ultimately more empowering, to acknowledge maybe there wasn't something I could just fix or adjust or achieve at to have prevented this from happening. Sometimes we are doing our best, knowing what we know, and it still all gets fucked up.
Dying is easy, young man
Living is harder.
- Lin-Manuel Miranda
This year, I’ve started to ruminate on what I’m calling Failure/Death. I want to put these two words together in a way that associates them and in by doing so, elevating Failure towards Death and diminishing Death towards Failure. I was reminded of this Hamilton lyric in that I think Washington sees death more like a release. Living involves taking responsibility for our actions and for their impact. Additionally, Death is abstract; it is literally outside of our imagination. Failure, however, feels very real. We can touch it, see it, taste it. We resonate within and measure out its impact.
I want to be clear here that I am distinguishing between the kind of real failure such as a foreclosure, a police shooting, deportation. I am not minimizing any of these and their horrific, gut wrenching impacts, sometimes involving death. I am speaking about the imagined Failure. Failure to be good enough. To be liked enough. Failure to convince everyone you are not a fraud.
I think the fear of Failure/Death was so embedded in me, that avoiding it became fundamental parts of who I am. I think this is on a deeply subconscious level (although we may have illuminative bursts of consciousness/reflection around it) but its impact is profound. It can feel like treading water when you don’t actually know how deep the ocean below your feet actually is. But you don’t want to find out. Because it is unthinkable. It can become so normative, you don't even realize you're treading anymore. You just feel the exhaustion. Failure/Death.
The failure of my relationship was a real, embodied manifestation of Failure/Death. I was operating in this mode, trying to draw from all my skills and strengths, to prevent it. But when it actually happened, I didn't actually die. I didn't drown. It was painful but I was still here. And I knew I was okay. I thought to myself, why was I working so hard to avoid this? It didn't even feel like a failure anymore, rather, a transition. There was loss, certainly, but I no longer felt I failed.
I began to realize that all the things I did in a subconscious attempt stave off Failure/Death. These aren’t particularly terrible things! I achieve hardcore. I’m super considerate. I avoid conventionality like the plague. I also realized I was controlling in a deeply sophisticated way; I even controlled how controlling I appeared. (Control is a classic way to avoid Failure/Death. Why would I feel the need to control something if I wasn't trying to prevent something from going wrong?) I managed to make all these things work for me. Who doesn’t want to be the highly successful, amazing friend who defies convention? Except I was embodying these things as a way of trying to avoid something out of fear. I was trying to outsmart Failure/Death. I did not want to know what depths there were below me.
So even though good things kept coming, I was missing out. I wasn’t fully present with people I cared about and I wasn’t fully committed to my collaborative projects. How can you see what is in front of you when you keep checking over your shoulder? For a long time, this was good enough. Then I broke someone’s heart. And I broke my own.
For the last year, a new possibility has emerged: what if I stop doing all the things to outrun Failure/Death and turn around and look at it? And be with it. Really be with all the discomfort and the fear. The more I did this, the more I saw it as irrational, nonsensical, increasingly diluted. Instead of outrunning Failure/Death, I began to redirect that energy and commitment to create resilience around and in response to all the inevitable types of actual failures that would undoubtedly continue to barrel towards me in this lifetime.
Remember that low frequency dread I felt when I got everything I wanted? It was a type of maxing out, an indication that something I was doing was no longer serving me. My growth this year wasn't about gaining more tools, more skills, more strategies to live a more fulfilling life. It was about humbly acknowledging aspects of who I am and what I do that brought me to this point but are perhaps no longer useful, no longer sustainable. I remember being at one of my numerous drinks things in New York. I was concerned that one of my friends, who didn’t know anyone else there, would be excluded. I felt the impulse to control the situation, out of consideration for my friend. I asked myself, what is the Failure/Death I’m avoiding here? I realized my impulse had nothing to do with my friends and everything to do with me. I wasn’t really being with them; they were fine. Something shifted. I saw my friends as they were — capable, full of agency, able to take care of themselves and others.
I almost didn’t write this. After this year, I feel I am the last person to proselytize about anything. I don’t believe there is a right way to take on this messy chaos of existence, but confronting and being with Failure/Death on all the levels I’ve traversed — it has opened up so much for me. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped achieving great things and am no longer considerate. I just do those things for different reasons, out of commitment to the communities I am a part of. This past year, I have felt a depth of joy and community and a compassion for others in ways I could not have imagined. And I have found an unconditional compassion for myself. This doesn’t mean I am not getting stuck, doubting myself, or making mistakes. It means I'm feeling and honoring those things and taking action anyway.
It's my birthday today and now I'm unstoppable.
I love you unconditionally.
Yes, even you. And you.