Chapter 2 – The Will to Fail
FROM the disciples of Schopenhauer and Freud, of Nietzche and Adler, we have all become conversant with such phrases as the Will to Live and the Will to Power.
These phrases, representing – sometimes to the verge of overstatement – drives of the organism towards fulfillment and growth, correspond to truths of experience with which each of us is familiar. We have seen children struggle to make themselves and their personalities felt; as young people we have contended for a chance to try our own emerging forces; after long illness we have felt the tide of returning strength in our veins. We know that any average man caught in unfortunate circumstances will put up with poverty, distress, humiliation with conditions which an onlooker will sometimes consider as much worse than death; and that only the presence of a will to continue living can account for the tenacity with which a man in such circumstances clings to the mere right to breathe and exist.
Furthermore, we first experience and then later turn to realize the process of growth in ourselves. The individual, emerges from childhood into adolescence, from adolescence into maturity; and at each of these crisis we find that the activities and interests of the old period are being replaced by those of the new, that Nature is preparing the organism for its new role in the world, is actually reconciling us to the new demands on us by showing us pleasures and rewards in the oncoming state which will replace those we must abandon.
But the idea of another will, a counter-balancing will, the Will to Fail, the Will to Death, is not so readily accepted. For a while it was one of the tenets of psychoanalysis, for instance, that no individual could actually imaginatively encompass the idea that he might cease to be. Even the death-dreams and suicide threats of deeply morbid patients were held to be grounded solely in ideas of revenge: the explanation was that the patient thought of himself as living on, invisible, but able to see the remorse and regret caused by his death in those by whom he thought himself ill-treated.
Freud, indeed, analyzing shell-shocked patients after the War, issued a monograph in which he stated that he had occasionally found dreams that indicated sincere death-wishes. This monograph is full of some of the best of Freud’s speculations and suggestions; but as for the appearance in popular psychologies of the idea that there could logically be a deathward current running through our lives, it is as though the thesis had never been suggested.
Yet death is as much a fact of experience as birth and growth; and if Nature prepares us for each new phase of life by closing off old desires and opening new vistas, it does not seem too difficult to think that we are, always, being slowly, gently reconciled to our eventual relinquishment of all we hold dear as living creatures. And withdrawal from struggle, abandonment of effort, releasing of desire and ambition would be normal movements in an organism which was being gently wooed away from its preoccupation with life.
It is for this reason that we are entitled to look upon the Will to Fail as a reality.
Now, If inertia, timorousness, substitute activity, effortless effort, quiescence, and resignation were found only at the end of life, or when we were drained by sickness or fatigue, if they never handicapped us when we should be in the full flood of our vital powers, there would be no reason at all for attacking this Will to Fail as if it were – as indeed it is – the arch-enemy of all that is good and effective in us. But when it appears in youth or full maturity it is as symptomatic of something wrong – deeply, internally wrong – with one’s life as untimely drowsiness is symptomatic of ordinary bodily ill health.
And if it were easily seen for the black-hearted villain it is, when it arrives out of its due time, it would be easy to fight. But almost always we are well within its power before we do more than suspect rarely and vaguely that all is not as it should be with us. We are so accustomed to speak of failure, frustration, timidity, as negative things, that it is like being invited to fight windmills when we are urged to fight the symptoms of failure.
In youth we seldom recognize the symptom; in ourselves. We explain our reluctance to getting started as the natural timidity of the tyro; but the reluctance stays, the years go, and we wake in dismay to find that what was once a charming youthful diffidence in us is now something quite different, sickly and repellent. Or we find a convenient domestic situation to bear the brunt of excusing us for never having got to work in earnest. We could not leave this or that relative lonely and defenseless. Then the family grows, scatters, and we are left alone, the substitute activity at which we had been so busy is taken remorselessly away from us, and we are sick and terrified at the idea of turning back to take up the long abandoned plans.
Or we have the best of all reasons for not doing as well as we might. Most of us are under the necessity of choosing between work and starvation, and the employment we were able to find when it was imperative that we should begin earning is not work for which we are ideally suited. When marriage and the raising of a family have been undertaken, the necessity is all the more urgent. We might be willing to wait through a few thin years if no one but ourselves would suffer, but to ask others to do so takes more selfishness, and more courage, than most of us can muster.
Especially in America, where marriages for love are the rule, most young people start out on their married life with little more than their health, youth, and intelligence as capital. We are accustomed to think of the European idea of asking a dot, a dower, from the bride’s family as somehow ignoble and mercenary. Yet insisting on that little reserve fund of money with which to meet the demands of establishing a new household has much to recommend it, and the fact that we have no such custom in this country may be one reason why America, the much-vaunted Land of Opportunity, can show so many men and women of middle age wasting themselves in drudgery, filling positions which bring them no joy, and looking forward to a future which at its happiest promises years of monotony, and at its worst the nightmare of poverty-ridden unemployment.
This necessity to fall upon the first work we can find is alone enough to explain why so few of us ever manage to bring our plans to fruition. Often, at first, we have a firm intention of not losing sight of our real goal, in spite of the fact that we must make a living at uncongenial work. We plan to keep an eye on our ambitions, and to work at them by hook or crook – evenings, weekends, on vacations. But the nine-to-five work is tiring and exacting; it takes super-human strength of character to go on working alone when the rest of the world, is at play, and when we have never had any evidence that we should be successful if we continued, anyway. And so without realizing it we are swept into the current of the Will to Fail. We are still moving, and we do not see that our motion is down stream.
Most of us disguise our failure in public; we disguise it most successfully from ourselves. It is not hard to ignore the fact that we are doing much less, than we are able to do, very little of what we had planned even modestly to accomplish before a certain age, and never, probably, all that we had hoped. One reason it is so easy to deceive ourselves is that somewhere along the way we seem silently to enter into a sort of gentleman’s agreement with our friends and acquaintances. “Don’t mention my failure to me,” we tacitly plead, “and I will never let the hint that you are not doing quite all I should expect of you cross my lips.”
This tactful silence is seldom broken in youth or in the early middle years. Until then, the convention is that at any moment we may get into our stride. A little later and the silence is relaxed. There comes a time when it is safe to smile ruefully and admit that the hopes we went out to meet the world with were too high and much too rosy, particularly those hopes we had held for our own performance. In the fifties – and sometimes earlier – it is usually safe enough to do a little disarming and semi-humorous grumbling; after all, few of our contemporaries are in a position to say “Why can’t you start now?” And yet some of the greatest work in the world, many of the world’s irreplaceable masterpieces, were done by men and women well past what we too superficially consider their prime.
So we slip through the world without making our contribution, without discovering all that there was in us to do, without using the most minute fraction of our abilities, either native or acquired. If we manage to be fairly comfortable, to get some respect and admiration, a taste of “a little brief authority” and some love, we think we have made a good bargain, we acquiesce in the Will to Fail. We even pride ourselves on our shrewdness, not suspecting how badly we have been cheated, that we have settled for the compensations of death, not the rewards of life.
If the elaborate game that we all play with ourselves and each other never came to an end – never ran down for a moment so that we suddenly saw that it was only a game after all – the Will to Fail might urge us all gently downhill till we came to rest at its foot, and no one would dream of protesting. But the game has such a way of breaking off sometimes, right at its most amusing spot; and we suddenly wonder why we are running about like this, how we happen to be playing away at hide-and-seek as if our lives depended on it, what became of the real life we meant to lead while we have been off doing nothing, or busy at the work that provides us with no more than our bread and butter.
Sometimes the moment passes and is forgotten until long after, if ever remembered at all. But some of us never forget it. If we go on with the game, it turns into a nightmare, and how to wake out of it and get back into reality becomes our whole preoccupation. Then sometimes the nightmare seems to deepen; we try one turn after another which looks as if it led to freedom, only to find ourselves back in the middle of Alice’s Looking Glass Garden beginning the hunt all over again.
Yet we can escape; and again, rather like Alice, by seeming at first to go backward: by admitting that there may be a real Will to Fail, and next, that we may be its victims.
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