Often, when I force myself, while biting my teeth and clenching my joints, to peer inside me, I all I can see is a deep, dark tunnel stacked neck high in old failures, missed opportunities, a recorded snapshots of moments when I just couldn’t jump high enough, or didn’t, or forgot to try at all to make it over the bar I had set for myself. It’s an archive of regrets, a collection of moments that stir up humiliation and defeat even years and years later. In a technical sense, they are all over now, time has blown by and I am where I am. But I can’t help but think, if I had only done better along the way, if I had only been a better seven-year-old, a more intelligent eight-year-old, a more modest nine-year-old, a more neat ten-year-old, a more disciplined eleven-year-old, a more pleasant twelve-year-old, a more dignified sixteen-year-old, and even a more efficient eighteen-year-old that I could be somewhere much closer to the destination I had set for myself by this time when today was but a distant speck into the future.
And so, in a strange way, I punish myself by never letting a memory decay, never letting a feeling of shame dissolve. I hold them all in perfect form, can call on them at any time. Sometimes they wash over me unexpectedly: a burden from childhood, a shame from last month.
It is hard to accept for myself that I am not who I thought I would be by the time I arrived at this intersection of life, but shameful mostly. Shame. That’s what I feel and hold. Regret. Disappointment. Over all the ways I could have better navigated through the two decades of life I have been given. I am nowhere near as graceful or compassionate, or useful in the world as I had desired for myself. I never predicted the hurdles I would have to jump through (most of which of course, I tend to blame on myself), and so I didn’t predict the scars I would have from the falls either. You read articles about twelve-year-olds founding companies and sixteen-year-olds making the New York Times Best Sellers list. How to not feel inadequate? How to not feel like you’ve missed the mark already?
I have always held myself to high standards. Perhaps too high, deathly high, terrifying high. But I don’t know what other kinds of expectations are worth setting (perhaps another on the long list of things I have yet to learn and don’t know how). The first stumble, rejection, one splinter in the tender placement of dreams stacked on top of each other with no room for error or rest or breath sends me into a spiral of bewilderment and loneliness. I wonder, what the heck have I been doing for the past decade? Who am I? What have I built? What have I contributed to human civilization? What have I done to bring dignity to my own name?
You might think it’s crazy to think this way. Of course, not everyone is going to be exceptional! Then the word exceptional would mean nothing at all. Some of us have to be average. We have to be normal. That’s statistics. That’s just life.
But I know I can’t be the only one, who has told herself that the word average is too foul to be uttered. That to resolve to be ordinary is to resolve to be nothing. I have been around high achieving students and young people my whole life, people who decided that the rest of the world would be the rule and they would be the exception. We attend Ivy League Universities which churn out school article after article about the brilliant, accomplished students on campus, which reward those who are the bravest and most groundbreaking and watch us fight over the few seats left among the extraordinary of the world. And I’m pumped full of it, the thirst for significance, the craving for excellence and contribution. These are the ways I have taught myself to experience the world: as nothing more than a gallery of achievements and a graveyard of missed opportunities.
Its alarming no doubt. Perhaps I am spiritually deficient. Or simply arrogance. I ought to know better some might say, I ought to seek to be known by my Lord and not by His creation. But that is much, much easier said than done. It is hard to imagine a life worth living that isn’t robust with achievement. Even our own Beloved Prophet was known and honored and revered by creation. That’s the kind of person who shapes the world. People who are excellent. People who set themselves apart. People who do something meaningful and significant in their lives.
And we have arrived at the end of the page, and I still have no neat and tidy way to talk about failure. I am in the midst of it. In denial mostly, with this ever persevering college student mentality that I will be able to whip something up in the final countdown on this defining chapter of life just in time to save it all and the chips will fall into place the way I so desperately need them too. I just simply don’t know any other way to move through this wild, unpredictable, disappointing, imperfect, and terrifying world. This is all I have ever let myself know. And perhaps that is my greatest failure of all.