Chapter 3 – Victims of The Will to Fail
IF the Will to Fall announced its presence with symptoms as uniform and unmistakable as those which indicate measles or a bad cold, it would probably have been eradicated, or a technique for combating it would have been worked out, long ago.
But unfortunately its symptoms are varied and legion. If you were to drag a dining, dancing, theater-going, middle-aged metropolitan playboy away from his merry-go-round and introduce him to an unshaven, ill-clad cracker-box philosopher dreaming in the sun, saying, “I want you two to know each other; you have so much in common,” you would be thought mad, yet you would be right. The dreaming idler, the introvert, and the dancing extrovert – at the antipodes from the point of view of worldly circumstance – are motivated by the same impulse; unconsciously they are both trying to fail.
Their lives have a common denominator. “Do not act as if you had a thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius warned himself in his maxims. All those in the grip of the Will to Fail act as if they had a thousand years before them.
Whether they dream or dance, they spend their precious hours as though the store of them were inexhaustible.
But since there are as many ways of failing as there are divisions and subdivisions of the psychological types, we often do not recognize the presence of the Will to Fail in others or in ourselves. Here are a few of the innumerable ways of “acting as though you had a thousand years to live”:
There are, for instance, those who sleep from two to six hours a day more than they need to sleep to keep in perfect physical health. In any individual case, unless the sleeping hours far exceed the normal quota, it is very hard to be sure one has not to do with merely an unusually long sleeper. But when the note of compulsion enters, one can be sure of having found a true victim of failure. Those who are bad-tempered or only half alive if an early bedtime must be postponed, those who anxiously count each morning the exact number of hours spent in sleep the night before, mourning inconsolably any interruption, every hour of insomnia, every untimely doorbell, are looking to sleep for more than its normal restorative function. When an adult extends even this, making a nap or two a day a matter of routine, the diagnosis becomes simple.
Next, still among the inconspicuous failures, the “introverts,” are the waking sleepers: persons who allow some activity to pass before them almost without participation, or indulge in time-killing pursuits in which they take only the most minor and unconstructive parts: the solitaire-players, the pathological bookworms, the endless crossword puzzlers, the jigsaw puzzle contingent. The line between recreation and obsession is not hard to see once we know it is there.
Easiest of all to recognize as lovers of failure are the heavy drinkers. A volume could be written on them, but too many volumes have. Where drinking is so constant as to bring on a waking sleep, or, deeper, a kind of death in life, the presence of the Will to Fail is obvious to any observer. But there are thousands who show the symptoms in so faint a form that they pass almost unnoticed: all those who drink knowing that it means a bad morning the next day, a vague and woolly approach to every problem until the effects have passed off; those to whom any drinking means physical discomfort, whether acute or trifling. Anyone who has learned to expect these consequences and yet continues to lay himself open to them stands convicted of the desire to handicap himself, at least to that extent. It makes very little difference what the drink in question may be. If coffee disturbs you, if you cannot digest milk, and you nevertheless continue to drink it, you may escape the disapproval which is meted out to the highball drinker, but you are in the same class. And, plainly, unwise eating comes under the same head.
Turning to the active type, it may be said that the extroverts who pursue failure as their primary career find so many ways of doing it that the attempt to tabulate them all would be hopeless. But, as examples, there are the relentless movie- and theater-goers, the nightly dancers, all those who count the day lost which has not a tea or dinner or cocktail party in it . . . No, of course there is nothing against relaxation and recreation when they are really called for, after a period of contributory activity. But those who enter an objection to this classification too early and too angrily, crying that one must have recreation, give themselves dead away as setting an abnormal value on release.
Then there are the half-and-half failures, difficult to place, such as the embroiderers and knitters, although it is only fair to say here that sometimes a light task calling for only manual dexterity may go on while the mind is usefully engaged in solving a real problem. Complete honesty with oneself is all that is necessary to discover whether the rhythmical activity is being used in one way or the other. If a dull stupor sets in, or if, on the other hand, the work is just elaborate enough, calls for just enough conscious attention so that no automatic rhythm can be established, then it is rare indeed that this kind of motion can be put in the category of true creative activity, or that of being accessory to creative action.
As to aimless conversationalists, we can more easily see others fall in that group than that we are included ourselves. Sometimes we are startled into realizing that we have repeated the same anecdote to the same friend and for a few days go warily. That is a minor slip. No reminiscent ring, no forced smile on our auditor’s lips will stop us when we are habitually marking time with words – when we have the same unevolving round of topics, the same opinions to repeat mechanically, the same half-aimless observations to make on the same recurring situations, the same automatic indignation at the same old abuses, the same illustrations to prove the same points, and a few lukewarm arguments to bolster up what may once have been opinions but are now seldom more than prejudices.
Sometimes we ride a verbal mannerism so hard that a hearer objects irritably.
(Suggestions for overcoming such mannerisms will be given later; here we are only considering the way in which they unconsciously betray in us the presence of a Will to Fail.) It is probably a great piece of luck to rouse a friend to this extent. If you learn with shocking suddenness that you are forever saying “I mean,” “Of course,” “I imagine,” “Do you see?” “You know,” “As a matter of fact,” you are likely to listen to your own voice for a period and discover that not only do these tag words occur over and over in your conversation, but that there is nothing particularly fresh or valuable about the ideas they have served to embellish. Here, as in the other categories, it is very easy to see that there is something wrong when one meets gross examples of the difficulty; an hysterical talker is obviously mentally ill. But that there are subtler forms of the same trouble, often hidden for years because we do our repeating to constantly changing audiences, seldom dawns on us.
There are still more obscure and unnoticeable ways of falling victim to the Will to Fail, ways to which introverts and extroverts are almost equally susceptible. Consider the innumerable persons, for instance, who deliberately undertake work which calls for only a small part of their abilities and training, and who then drive themselves relentlessly, exhausting themselves over useless details. There are the takers of eternal post-graduate courses, turning up on the campus year after year like so many Flying Dutchmen.
There are the “devoted” daughters and sons and mothers and wives (fathers are seldom found here, for some reason, although there may be an occasional husband) who pour out their lives into the lives of other adults, but whose offering, since they have never truly developed what was most valuable in themselves, adds no richness and only unimportant comfort to the objects of their “self-sacrifice.” There are those who undertake a task known by them to be beyond their powers, or engage in a specious “research” problem: there is a man in New York, for example, who has been gathering biographical details about an obscure Italian statesman since his sophomore year in college. This pseudo-biographer is now in his late forties, and not one word of that definitive Life has been written.
Perhaps the greatest class of all those whose goal is failure is that of the Universal Charmers. When you find yourself in the presence of more charm than the situation calls for, you are safe in saying to yourself, “Ah, a failure!” This is no diatribe against genuine warm-heartedness, against friendliness, or true sweetness of character. We are talking now about the Harold Skimpoles of the world, about the cajoling, winsome adult, either man or woman, who insists on being accepted by his or her contemporaries as just a great, big, delightful child – irresponsible, perhaps, not very thoughtful, but so exceedingly lovable, even to strangers! There are the whimsical teases and the humorous complainers, and if they are good to look at, quick-witted or amusing, they are more likely than not to be successful in arousing a momentary indulgence, a tolerant tenderness.
It is only in retrospect that one realizes there was no valid reason for the moment’s emotion. A healthy adult does not need the tenderness or indulgence of every casual acquaintance. Except for a guilty conscience, no one would ever dream of making a play for this kind of response. These victims are under the hard necessity of working at charm as convicts work at stone-crushing; they must go on being more and more charming to offset their waning attractions, or face the truth – admit that they have not adequately discharged their responsibilities. As long as their inadequacy is never seen except mirrored in the indulgent eyes of another they can go on without admitting the fact that they are failing. So on they go, cheating their way through life – unless by good fortune they can come to see who really suffers most from the exercise of their charm.
So there are all these ways, and innumerable others, of filling one’s time with seemingly purposeless activity, or a falsely purposeful routine, and they are all the result of submitting to the Will to Fail.
For, remember, these activities are only apparently purposeless. There is in every case a deep intention, which may be stated in many ways.
We may say that the most obvious intention is to beguile the world into believing that we are living up to our fullest capacity. This is particularly true of those cases where the outward life is full of a thousand little matters, or one big job of drudgery conscientiously done. No one, surely, could ask us to do more than we are doing? Are we not plainly so busy that we have not one minute or a grain of strength to do anything more? Is it not our duty to do the dull, insignificant, unsatisfying task thoroughly? Those are questions which only the individual can answer honestly for himself, usually in the hours of insomnia or convalescence, when the mind which is usually so engrossed about trivial affairs finds time to stop and consider.
In the long run it makes little difference how cleverly others are deceived; if we are not doing what we are best equipped to do, or doing well what we have undertaken as our personal contribution to the world’s work, at least by way of an earnestly followed avocation, there will be a core of unhappiness in our lives which will be more and more difficult to ignore as the years pass.
The fritterers and players and the drudging workers are bent mainly on deceiving themselves, on filling every nook and cranny of their waking hours so that there is no spot where a suspicion of futility can leak through. And at night, of course, they are either still hard at play or too exhausted to consider realities. Yet such victims present a dreadful spectacle when once they are plainly seen – seen as insane misers, stuffing a senseless accumulation of trash, odds and ends of sensations, experiences, fads and enthusiasms, synthetic emotions, into the priceless coffer of their one irreplaceable lifetime.
Whatever the ostensible purpose may be, it is plain that one motive is at work in all these cases: the intention, often unconscious, to fill life so full of secondary activities or substitute activities that there will be no time in which to perform the best work, of which one is capable. The intention, in short, is to fail.
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