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A Crack in Everything

Jennifer Kavanagh

Our society idolises success - but at what price? After leaving a high-profile publishing job for a life of service and contemplation, Jennifer Kavanagh found that so-called failure can be a blessing in disguise.

Success! What a glorious, ringing, resounding sound that has. Something golden to reach out for, a pinnacle to attain. Passing, winning, beating - success is heady stuff.   The concept of success (and its frightening shadow, failure) is deeply rooted in our society. Success in this model is based on a collection of stereotypes, including wealth, property, marriage, children, a circle of friends, and the respect of our local community. We may come to believe that we are judged by our house, our car, our job, even the holidays we take. The image of perfection created by an omnipresent edifice of advertising insists that success brings with it a certain body type, exuding good health and fitness: the men sporty and tall, the women slim.

But there is no success without failure. Like all pairs of opposites, each serves to define the other, to set it into sharper focus. For many people, the result of our fixation on success is status anxiety. For anyone who doesn't fit the stereotype, be they gay, unable to have children, short, unfit, dyslexic or unemployed, it is not surprising that a sense of failure hovers. A South African friend put it more strongly: 'Everything in magazines shouts that you don't make the grade', leading to 'a pervading sense of guilt and inadequacy'. And if we define success as material prosperity we are relegating most of the world's population to failure.

Like many people in our society, I was culturally conditioned to achieve, to attain success at school, in exams, and at work. For nearly 30 years I worked in publishing, the last 14 as an independent literary agent, a business that many consider as 'glamorous': in worldly terms I might have been considered a 'success'. But in 1997 I was led to sell up and move into another world. I started a community centre in the East End of London and worked as a volunteer with street homeless people. Subsequently I set up microcredit programmes in rural African communities, became a research associate for the Prison Reform Trust, and a facilitator for a conflict resolution programme. And I now write books.

The contrast between my previous world and the one I live in now was highlighted a few years ago when I walked down a street in the West End of London, and passed a smart bar, outside which were sitting two publishers with whom I had previously done much business. I was tramping purposefully along the road, dressed in a fleece, flat shoes and with a knapsack on my back.

The two editors - both people I like and respect - were sitting in casual elegance, each with a glass of white wine in hand. We greeted each other warmly, they asked politely about what I was doing, but the contrast between my current work and the mega-sellers that engage their attention was obvious to us all. They were kind but really not at all interested. In leaving the profession I had gone off the radar. Fortunately, I am a realist and would not have expected anything else - and it made me chuckle. But how did that change come to pass?

It is significant that at times of brokenness we become able to access another dimension, open ourselves up to faith. It was so in my own life: after the break-up of my marriage, and the diagnosis of my daughter with a chronic illness, something strange began to happen. Every time I went into a church for a christening or to look at the architecture, I found myself in tears. I didn't understand what was happening, but knew that I could not ignore it. Trauma had cracked me open, and the call of faith was tough, and irresistible. It's a perspective that is most vividly expressed in the Leonard Cohen song, 'There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.' And it's been endorsed by many religious teachers, including the Franciscan Richard Rohr, who says that 'failures and humiliation open up the heart space'.

In my case, the light that came through the crack included an understanding of a new way of being, a letting go of the need to try to control what happened in my life. Instead of an ambitious drive to make things happen, I knew now that I would be led. I had in fact been uneasy for some time with the world of publishing, which the celebrity culture and the bottom line had come to dominate, but it was only when I found faith - or rather, when faith found me - that I realised that I could just stop. Without any idea of what I would do, I sold the business I had run for the past 14 years, and waited. I did not have to wait long for another door to open. Trust had come into the equation.

My newfound faith found a context in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). As soon as I arrived, I was asked to co-ordinate the tea runs for homeless people that various Quaker Meetings were running in London. I was nervous: sure that I would either be sneered at or hit over the head by a bottle-wielding druggie. Of course neither happened. Instead, as I walked over to a young man in a sleeping bag and asked if he would like a cup of tea or coffee, and whether he took sugar, I found myself forming a relationship with another human being. Instead of stepping over a bundle in a doorway with embarrassment and guilt, I was doing something, however small, and my preconceptions fell away. I realised in that moment that it could have been me on that doorstep, that there is no such thing as 'the other', and from then on my work has brought me to engage with those that society generally dismisses as outsiders, as 'failures'.

If I look back on various periods of my life, I don't see them in terms of success and failure. I did what felt right at the time, however differently I might do it now. I don't, on the whole, have regrets, except about being unkind or ungenerous. Hindsight, it seems to me, is an unhelpful perspective. It was as it was. It now is as it is. And will be as it will be. We just have to get on with it, being open and alive to the possibilities that are offered. We are who we are with all our gifts and fallibility, our vulnerability and our potential for greatness. We do not need the masks we hide behind, the roles we inhabit, to compensate for feelings of unworthiness. We do not need to project our own fear of failure or success onto celebrities. If there is such a thing as being a failure it is, perhaps, not to fulfil our potential, or not to realise our gifts - not to be who were meant to be. This failure may take the form of a unwillingness to try, or a use of our talents for selfish and unjust ends. This is true of ourselves as individuals, as communities, and collectively as a species.
The whole notion of success is built on the basis of goals and outcomes. For me, creative growth is learning to let go of my forward-looking compulsion: needing to plan things, wanting to have finished things. In my writing, I have learnt not to sit at my computer for set hours every day, not to set myself a certain number of words to be written each week, allowing the Spirit room to breathe. I have recognised that I am more interested in dreams made concrete than achievable goals, and am trying to open up my life accordingly.

Planning for success presumes that we are in control, and that we know what will happen. Neither is true. The old saying 'If you want to make God laugh, make a plan' reflects the hubris of these presumptions, though it's easy to see why they are attractive. Letting go of certainty, and opening ourselves to the rigors of doubt, is to make ourselves vulnerable. We are accustomed to being clear, being sure, and being right. Inner whispers that tell us otherwise are easier to ignore. Even if we are intellectually aware that others may not agree, certainty is an attractive position and bolsters our confidence. In comparison, doubt is dangerous: akin to failure in its potential to undermine firmly held convictions and precious beliefs, including about ourselves.

We need to let go of the quest for individual perfection, forgive our weaknesses, and accept what is. In fact, someone who exudes success and apparent invincibility is not attractive. When we admit that we don't have all the answers, others feel as if they might have something to offer. One of the best-loved Quaker aphorisms is: 'Think it possible that you may be mistaken.' When we admit our mistakes and our vulnerability we are more lovable, both by God and by other people. We have opened ourselves up to a shared understanding of need, and to the possibility of mutual healing. As the Tao says, 'Weakness is the means the way employs.1'

We all know how the unforeseen can intervene in the best of plans. If we recognise that it is the unforeseen that might have the most importance in our lives, we may allow ourselves to welcome uncertainty. If we let go of plans, we are giving the unforeseen more of a chance. In our creative selves, the part of us that goes beyond the routine certainties of everyday life, it is spontaneity, being open to the unexpected, that matters. Anxiety or worry about outcomes is not only pointless, it is a symptom of a lack of trust. The seventeenth-century lay Brother Lawrence didn't even prepare for tasks, just entrusted them to God, and he knew that all would be well. Julian of Norwich too knew in the core of her being that 'all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.' But belief of this kind is not some starry eyed Pollyanna-ish naiveté but in both people was grounded in an inner peace developed over years of experience, struggle and suffering.

In his famous poem 'If', Rudyard Kipling wrote:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…

What a high degree of detachment is called for to treat triumph and defeat, success and failure, just the same. Can we really rise above the exhilaration of the one and the pain of the other? Detach ourselves from ambition and the fruits of our labour? Recognise that seemingly different outcomes are interconnected, that in the long term all is one? It's a life-time's journey.

But even if we can imagine that journey, if we also believe that success and failure are impostors, what do we put in their place? It is generally accepted that success is 'good', failure 'bad'. But a crucial, and largely unrecognised, fact about success and failure is that they are morally neutral. One can succeed at something which makes a positive or negative impact on the world. Killing a man or growing a flower. It is the content and the context of the act which determine its moral quality.

That means that we must look elsewhere for what is truly important. Why are we trying to be successful? What for? What are we trying to be successful at?

Success and failure are only recognised with hindsight: in the doing we are rarely conscious of any such concept. In development work, for instance, any notion of failure or success is external. On the ground, in the moment, no such notion arises. What is going on is about a relationship, a connection, maybe a small shift in understanding or attitude. It is clear when it happens, and it may be far-reaching in the life of the individual concerned, but it is not measurable in any terms that would make sense from the outside.

In our personal lives too, entering into the fullness of the moment demands complete and intentional attention. It may be that in the process of sitting an examination, taking a test or competing with others, the notion of winning, of success, crosses our thoughts, but the moment such self-consciousness interrupts our concentration, the performance is likely to falter. As Tennessee Williams said, 'Success is shy - it won't come out while you're watching.' Only when we are immersed in the process of what we are doing will there be an opportunity for creative take-off, for us to feel inspired, to do something beyond our usual capabilities.

The opportunity to lose ourselves in what we are doing comes only if we are engaged in something that enlivens us. Albert Schweitzer considered that 'success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.' That has certainly been my experience. I have been fortunate in my life to be involved in work that has been important to me. When I first managed the careers of writers as an independent literary agent, I decided that I would represent only the work that I loved. Feeling that this was self-indulgent and unlikely to make my living, I thought I had better take on a couple of part-time activities to pay the bills. The extra activities did not work; the agency boomed. I was doing what I loved; was persuasive in my own love of the work, and others were convinced.

In a religious life, how would one measure success? A glimpse of the Divine? A day lived in the Presence? But the moment a consciousness of 'well done' enters in, the sense has gone, the ego takes over, blocking the inner space that can be the home of the Spirit. Angela Ashwin likens the experience of prayer to time spent with a lover - not to get anything out of it, but just for the sake of it2. Whether the experience leaves a positive glow or a feeling of emptiness, 'the language of success and failure is meaningless here... What matters is that we stay there'2. What do we mean by success, anyway, when we know that nothing is achieved except through grace? Not I, but God in me.

We all know we fall short, miss the mark, at every turn. Failure is a minute-by-minute occurrence, if we choose to see it that way. Acknowledgement - even confession - can be healthy. But the important thing is to recognise our human fallibility - and be kind to ourselves. We know we are not perfect; we also know that we have strengths and talents.

There is another approach to life, less goal-directed, more mindful, with the focus on the way, the process, living with intention and love. If the process is open and there is no outcome in mind, where is the success or failure? We need to let go of the burden of expectation and the pressure to achieve. Then we can do things without a 'why'. Do them in purity, because it is right. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, 'God has not called me to be successful; he has called me to be faithful.'

As we move into the realm of the heart and open it, that is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. In so doing we also open ourselves to the possibility of a different kind of knowing. If we set aside our rational priorities, and trust our experience and inner rather than outward certainty, we may find a kind of knowing that has a different, intuitive, quality. A different kind of knowledge, not limited to facts and practicalities based on the senses, or information derived from the senses, but knowing with the entire being.

Then, rather than being frustrated by the things we do not know or understand, we will realise that there is much that we cannot rationally know, and find contentment in that unknowing. In this fallow ground of darkness germinate the seeds of our spiritual growth and creative selves. In living through times of dryness and doubt we are putting our trust in a process that we can never fully understand. Then we can discover the joy, as the 20th-century US Quaker Thomas Kelly, puts it, of 'walking with a smile into the dark'3. Speaking on Wonders of the Universe on television, Professor Brian Cox said, 'That is the most beautiful place for a scientist to be: on the borders of the known and the unknown.'
For the mystic, too, that is true.

If we let go of our judgemental behaviour, we will no longer view life in terms of success or failure. If we let go of the need to know or control our lives, we will let go of goals and expectation. If we let go of our attachment to outcomes, we will be content with where and who we are.

The Failure of Success by Jennifer Kavanagh is published this month by O Books.

1  Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated with an introduction by D.C. Lao, Penguin, 1969, p25.
2  Angela Ashwin, Faith in the Fool, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010, p29.
3  Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper & Row, 1941, p74.