..in a time of bank failures and growing joblessness perhaps a historical perspective helps?
The first recorded instance in history of failure occurred about 3.8 billion years ago, on a Tuesday, luckily just after supper, when a planet-like object about the size of Mars crashed into the Earth, tearing off a piece which became our moon. The noise, we assume, was quite loud. The planet-like object was shattered in the collision and thus failed to pass by in its flight or survive the impact.
The Earth, however, benefited – at least the opportunity for life did so – as many scientists now tell us that life might never have had the right conditions for gestation if not for our new moon’s creation of tides and tide pools, or of its gravitational stabilization of our orbit and planetary wobble. And without the moon what would we rhyme with spoon?
Time passed and a million species first thrived and then died, failing to adopt to new circumstances – dinosaurs, giant sloths, Republicans. Getting blind-sided by floods and meteors, droughts, volcanoes and ice ages is a bitter fate, and to call it a failure of sorts may be a bit harsh – but none the less it is simply failure to survive – there is no moral condemnation or scorn attached to it.
Failure occurs again and again throughout history.
The Bible assures us the first recorded instance of human failure was Adam and Eve’s failure to listen to a parental figure in stealing the apple (..acquiring forbidden knowledge? Was the apple a metaphor for sex, for fire, for farming?)
Filching a piece of fruit may seem like small reason for incurring divine wrath. For in the ultimate paradoxical reaction, the All-Knowing God got mad at Adam and Eve when He discovered their transgression. But in order to get mad you have to be unpleasantly surprised. How in the universe can an all-knowing being be surprised?? And how can an all-powerful being lose control of Himself and become both angry and vindictive? Surely God’s blowing His cosmic cool was a major example of failure? You shoulda taken a chill pill, Dude.
The next instance of early failure was even more dramatic. Cain, unable to control his bitter envy, killed his brother. Whose failure exactly was this very first case of both fratricide and homicide?
Well, there was apparently plenty of blame to go around. Adam and Eve obviously failed to teach their number one son anger management. God, once again of course, is a major culprit and instigator in the story as He contemptuously turned up His infinite and snooty nose at Cain’s offering of wheat, smacking His endless lips instead in delight at Abel’s burnt animal offerings. Can anyone honestly claim that the all-wise but bare-b-cue loving Lord did not fail to exercise good judgment here? When you play favorites with your children you eventually pay a price.
Throughout the whole Bible God issues dire warnings and terrible threats – yet it is surprising how often he is ignored, as if his creations below considered him nothing more than a decrepit and tiresome blowhard.
The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah ignored his warnings, and Lot’s wife became an even more salty wench when she dared to look back. But what did God honestly expect in her case – as God is a “Him. What woman has ever listened to a man’s moralizing injunctions?
Later the Jews’ proud invention of One God, monotheism was perhaps the ultimate mistake. The idea sounds good at first – like one-stop shopping. With one god you have only one infinite backside to kiss - or bribe with prayers or burnt offerings. In those days, everyone else, much like the Hindus today, had an endless number of deities that they had to take into account. But this endless number was in fact an advantage, for as Hindus rightly point out, if you have 50 Gods pissed off at you you might also have 50 others who rather like you. So there is usually balance. The Jewish/Christian/Muslim God is a fickle fellow, subject to drastic mood swings. PMS on a cosmic level would suggest a great Mother in the sky - except for the fact that females – deities or otherwise - don’t seem to enjoy the same gleeful and hideous punishing of transgressors.
Other Biblical failures? Jonah should have stuck to goat and camel instead of trying to add fish to his diet. Noah thoughtlessly invited his mother-in-law on board thusly guaranteeing the continuing survival of mothers-in-law. (And was it a failure of judgment or morals that God, just because He was pissed at humans, chose to drown a trillion innocent animals but spared the fish?!? That’s species-ism on a grand scale.)
Speaking of fish, Jesus fed 5,000 with 5 fish, ignoring the fact that some people don’t care for fish. (The Bible does not tell us some were offered an alternative of chicken or a kosher meal.)
Jesus also urged us to be nice and to turn the other cheek. Some listened and were convinced. Others were not and his crucifixion resulted. Few people today would dare call Christ a failure, but the honest among us must admit that his results were mixed at best.
Meanwhile the Romans were cleverly bringing water to the citizens of Rome via their brilliantly engineered viaducts. Unfortunately once the water reached Rome it was distributed to the city’s fountains by lead pipes. (The word plumber derives from the Latin word for lead.)
Historians disagree on the degree of damage the lead had on the citizenry’s health. (But paradoxically today we humans damage the health of pipes, as many co-ed dorms have to change the plumbing every three years because of the corrosive effects of so many brainless bulimics vomiting into their toilets.)
Other examples of ancient failures?
In Athens Socrates acquired attention and many students with his teaching methods – which mainly consisted of asking, “Yes.. but why do you think that?”
As most people quite naturally have no idea why they think what they think, and hate having to think about why they think what they think, the risk of pissing people off with this repeated tactic was immense, and sure enough Socrates was eventually forced to drink poison. He failed to see that he was a Greek pain in the ass, though not the first nor last. Rim shot!
Years later in Italy Galileo failed to convince the Catholic Church that the earth goes around the sun and he had to publicly pretend otherwise or be burned. Perhaps he should have said, “Yeah, okay.. the sun goes around the earth, Santa and the Tooth Fairy are real, and you can believe in trickle down economics as well.”
Around this same time Europe was devastated by the Black Death. No one was really to blame. People, after all, must travel and goods must be exchanged. That rats stow away and are carried along, along with their fleas, is unavoidable and thus no real failure or blame is to be attached at a time of universal bacterial ignorance.
But what was the surviving Europeans’ clever response to the plague? Blame it on the Jews and clever women! Jews and women were burned in their thousands, blamed for the disease, and recovery was put off by generations as many of these same Jews and clever women were the best doctors and midwives of their age. Childhood mortality was kept artificially high and population recovery slowed because of the lack of expert help with birthing.
Meanwhile on the other side of the earth, in another effort to appease angry gods, the residents of Easter Island were cutting down all their trees to make rollers for transporting their giant stone heads from their quarries. But once the trees were all gone they could no longer build boats for fishing and they eventually starved and became extinct. We can assume that at least their gods were pleased.
Speaking of boats, it was Christopher Columbus who had led the Spanish to the new world. Yes, he failed to find a short route to India, but the Spanish were delighted to learn that the American Indians had a lot more gold than the Indian Indians and no guns to defend it with. So initial failures can in fact turn advantageous.
In another business transaction with more mixed results the Spanish Conquistadors bartered syphilis for lung cancer, raping the local women while stealing their tobacco.
Other bright ideas? Not long after, the Irish told each other, “Let’s plant only spuds, balanced diets are feckin’ boring,” and the English reassured each other with, “If we never smile we won’t need dentists.”
Speaking of you English, instead of relieving them of their empty heads, you fed-up English wearily let the pushy, judgmental, superstitious, vindictive and power-mad puritans and kill-joy pilgrim ingrates migrate to North America to burn even more witches and terrorize the area for the next 400 years.
The following winter, the Indians, thinking “..What the hell, the poor bastards look famished..” fed the Pilgrims. Boy, did that backfire!
(And are the Native Americans making the same mistake today with their casinos – and their imported casino managers – Big Chief Broken-nosed Tony from the Fuhgettaboutits on the banks of the north Jersey shore? And are tribal elders forced to accept a smaller cut of the wampum for fear their moccasins will be encased in concrete?)
Let’s linger on the English for a moment. You English, proud inventors of spam & baked beans for breakfast, managed, despite an even more restrictive diet while at sea of hard tack and scurvy, to overpower most of the world. You did so by a divide and conquer tactic. For example, arriving in India you told the first tribe you met, “We will be your allies and help you enslave your neighbors. But if you do not agree to be our allies and do what we tell you we will become allies with your neighbors and help them enslave you. Choose quickly.”
This tactic worked brilliantly and is still practiced by Starbucks and Walmart.
The conquered natives of India and Africa, of South America and South Asia, all made the same fatal mistake: they believed the guy next door whom they knew better, was a bigger threat than you English or the Spanish, much in the same way most Americans are more afraid of Mexicans than they are of Chinese holders of most American debt.
Here’s another charming tale of monumental failure:
When the English ranchers began setting up shop in Kenya in the 1880’s they had wool in mind. But their African sheep all had sparse and scraggily hair instead of wool. So the English began to import small numbers of sheep from Europe and Australia and they crossbred these sheep with their African sheep. It took them over forty years to develop an animal that would give a fair amount of wool. But then suddenly the sheep began to die like flies. They died in the hundreds of thousands. And as the planters stood in mute confusion and contemplated the carcasses, one of them was struck by a startling revelation. It was hot. It was so hot that the English covered themselves from head to toe with linen, and their women even wore pillows on their backs, under their dresses to protect their spines from the deadly penetration of the sun's rays. Maybe these now wool-covered sheep disliked the African sun too and had decided to die. The man who was struck by this revelation then had another revelation which left him giddy and he rushed into his study and began to write a letter. Eleven weeks later, in reply to his letter, several huge crates arrived at the port of Mombassa. This gleeful planter collected these crates which had come all the way from Italy and he brought them home.
What was in the crates?
Sun bonnets. Four thousand specially woven sun bonnets.
The rancher and his workers then tied the four thousand sun bonnets on the heads of his remaining four thousand sheep, and then after admiring the wondrous spectacle, he ran to send messages to all his neighboring ranchers. And when these neighbors arrived in answer to this most mysterious message, they were greeted by an even more wondrous spectacle. The four thousand sheep were now busily and blissfully engaged in tearing off and eating each other's hats. In a single afternoon the four thousand specially imported Italian sun bonnets were chewed to bits, swallowed, digested and shat out in little calico pellets. And within weeks these sheep, too, were dead. Bankrupt and demoralized the rancher went back to Old Blighty, tanned and much wiser.
What lesson can be learned from this story?
If you can’t succeed, then fail in a way no one else has ever failed before.
(..an excerpt from my soon to be unpublished book How to Survive Failure Without Losing Your Mind. Any publishers out there??