The hierarchy of failure

Image: parent and child playing on a beach

I’m talking to my friend. Friend? She’s more like an acquaintance, because we don’t really hang out that much. She’s pretty hot, and I’d kind of like to have sex with her, and I think she kind of knows that, because she flatters me in this strange way where I wonder if she’s trying to manipulate me. I don’t think sex is going to happen, though, and that’s fine.

There was a time when I was more keen to have sex with her, back when my sexual desire made me less able to see more fundamental incompatibilities. Although, over the course of my life, I have managed to get into long relationships in spite of retrospectively obvious differences, so who knows what might have been possible. In any case, I took her on a date one time, but that’s as far as it got.

That was about twenty years ago, and at the time, she was clearly pursuing a very different type of guy than me. She wanted someone richer, more career driven, the kind of business suit wearing guy that you had no questions about whether or not they could buy a house in the next few years. Definitely not me.

This wasn’t just a theoretical list of qualities in an ideal mate that I was projecting onto her. She told me one time back then, in a conversation that for some reason I clearly remember happening on a street corner in Omotesando where we must have randomly bumped into each other, that she had made a list of specific objectives for her life. She wanted to achieve certain career goals within period of time, get married and have kids within a specific age range, and she had a list of characteristics that she wanted in a potential partner.

She was very driven, the type who reads books about how to self actualize and achieve in life and that sort of thing. Even though I disagreed with the strategy of writing a concrete timeline for one’s life to the degree that it precludes a certain amount of unanticipated opportunity, I respected her overall proactivity in making something happen for herself. She wasn’t just receiving life, she was engaging it, directing it, trying to make the most of it.

Twenty years later, I’m listening to her unload because she’s getting a divorce, certain business opportunities are going off the rails, and a lot of bottled up emotions are coming out. I’m not a confidant of hers or anything. We’ve barely kept in touch over the years, leading very different lives, merely intersecting now and again. Sometimes we’ll get in touch if we know of a work opportunity the other might be interested in. It just so happened that we met recently up to talk about a small job, but the conversation almost immediately switched from that business to her need to vent.

She says that the biggest mistake of her life was marrying a checklist. She got exactly the person she wanted in terms of their success and looks and status, but there were things not on the list that maybe were just as important to their long term success as a couple. Things that are more intuitive and hard to define.

She loves her kids, but the same time, as she talks about them, I get the feeling that she also kind of hates them. It’s contradictory in the way that humans are perfectly capable of having feelings that are simultaneous and opposite. She loves them, she wants nothing but the best for them, and I have no doubt she would do everything she can to protect and support them. It’s just that, by her own description, since I’ve never even seen them, they are a lot to handle, slightly out of control or something. She describes one of them as “evil,” half as a joke. And maybe more than their particular personalities, they’re representative of the scope of how her life did not turn out as planned.

Whenever you, or maybe it’s just me, think about having kids, I like to think I’m realistic about it in that I imagine the difficulties of dealing with them. Crying all night, changing diapers, temper tantrums, all that kind of thing. If anything, I probably focus too much on the things that make raising a child work, and not enough on the joys. Even still, the concepts I have are all stereotypical and general, they don’t really encapsulate the reality of having a human in your life that you are bound to, who is an entire person. And as such, they could be any kind of person, one that might challenge you in ways you just can’t imagine until you’re in that situation.

In any case, whatever the particulars, and I’m skipping a lot of details because they’re private to her, she’s in a situation that’s nothing like what she wanted. And she somehow got there by meticulously planning to get all the things she has.

I’ve told this anecdote about my conversation with this woman to other friends, and a lot of them take from it that the moral of the story is that she made a fundamental mistake in her approach to life. That when she made her list of goals, she focused on the wrong things. Too materialistic, too surface level, too external.

But I don’t see it that way. I’m uncomfortable with the level of blame it puts on her for having tried to make the effort to be happy. From what I gather from the few self-help books I’ve dabbled in, the kind I imagine she’s read, they generally promote a worldview where winning is shared. I think she had an idea that being happy herself was bound to being happy alongside a life partner in a healthy family that raised happy children in a community of happy friends. As a self actualized person herself, she expected, or at least hoped, that she would attract an equally self actualized person.

I think she was using the best available information she had, which was imperfect, as is the best information available to any of us. I think assessing her efforts in terms of their results to believe that perfect knowledge of what makes life work is available or even possible. It’s believing that the world isn’t so much bigger than all of us, so that we could control it if we did what we know to be right. By judging others, we can pull in data that outlines our map of how our own failures are a result of forces beyond us, but our successes are because of our choices.

I don’t think she did anything wrong. Nothing more wrong than I did, or anyone else. I bet other people did exactly what she did and won harder and failed harder. The fact is that while we can put some control into some things, we can’t control all things, and it’s all the things that shape your life.

Of course, after speaking with her, I was more concerned with what I could learn from her experience for my life.

I walked out of that conversation feeling better about myself. Which may seem pretty cold, but keep in mind, she’ll be fine. She’s certainly not lacking for money, because both her and her husband’s income were items on her checklist, and that makes her more existential struggles much more manageable than they might otherwise be.

But about me. When I look at some of my friends who have families and kids that they’re happy with, I feel like maybe I fucked up. I can see that joy that comes with something fundamental and pure about having a kind of family that I’ve never really believed I could have. I specifically avoided marriage and kids for most of my life because I didn’t want to make the mistakes my father made, I didn’t want to create the kind of childhood I had. But it’s been a while now that I’ve been more on the fence about having a family. I think I’ve finally grown up enough to maybe give it a go.

Even with more openness to the idea, though, it might not be something that happens for me, because I’m sticking with my principle that it would be better to not create a family than create an unhappy family. The guilt I would feel over feeling like I entered into a family arrangement without having at least created the best possible base to start from would be cataclysmic to my sense of identity.

It may be simplistic, but it seems a successfully happy family is the biggest win, not having a family is a bit of a miss, but having a family fall apart is a special kind of hurt that would make all my other histrionics over loves gained and lost seem like nothing.

Second place ain’t so bad.