Psychology, Learning, and the Serenity Prayer
How you have to fail in order to succeed
Posted Jul 30, 2016
Like many people, I get frustrated on the golf course. There are moments right before a shot when I visualize an athletic swing, smooth in its power and precise in its ball contact, only to wind up swinging spastically, being disconnected from my body which seems to have a mind of its own, and resulting in a shot that goes nowhere, or at least no where good. Reality falls short of the ideal I have in my mind and one that I have actually experienced at times in the past.
This experience of our body—or mind--not performing according to our wishes or memories of times past is common in activities ranging from playing sports, playing music, or writing. The common denominator is that an intention is frustrated by our physical or intellectual limitations.
The challenge in all of these instances is to learn to tolerate failure, a capacity which we know is a fundamental requirement for getting better at anything. The inability to tolerate breakdowns or blocks in the process of learning and mastering a skill can cause tremendous suffering.
Buddhists distinguish pain from suffering. Pain is something real; suffering is optional, the story that we tell ourselves about the pain we feel. For example, I am not a very skilled golfer. Much of what happens when I swing a club is outside my awareness. This usually leads to frustrating outcomes. Suffering arises when I attack myself for a bad shot, or when I feel that getting better is a hopeless endeavor.
The bigger lesson here is that all learning necessarily involves tolerating failure. Some people tolerate it well; others are almost allergic to it. You can see the latter clearly when these unfortunate people can’t get something right, or their best intentions are frustrated by something that might, in fact, be outside their control. A writer is blocked and stares at a blank screen. A runner’s pace plateaus or slows down. A student fails an exam. The results are irritating, even enraging, and they might strike out in frustration.
The reason that some people can’t tolerate failure often lies in their childhood history. Some people had parents who were intolerant of mistakes or failures. Some grew up in perfectionistic households or ones in which too much was invested in exceptional levels of performance. Children of alcoholics often encounter irritability and/or hopelessness in the addicted parent. Some children feel pressured to be perfect in order to bring some joy to an unhappy parent. Children need to be encouraged and supported in mastering skills and developing their abilities. Environments have to be safe enough so that children can make and learn from their mistakes.
The ability to tolerate failure in learning a skill is similar to the capacity to tolerate the various forms of physical and mental decline that necessarily accompany aging. When people in my generation—the baby boom generation—get together, we invariably talk about the various ways our bodies ache, or are slowed down, or how we are experiencing problems with memory and other intellectual functions. For some of us, this is painful but not necessarily devastating. We can even make light of it. For others, physical and/or mental decline suggest a type of catastrophic personal failure, loss of masculinity or femininity, or some other unforgivable deficit.
Growing older means mourning the loss of youth, and, like losing a loved one, becomes distorted and self-destructive if it is denied or avoided.
When we deny or try to escape from failure or loss—whether external or internal—problems invariably arise. We might develop an addiction in order to stamp out painful feelings. We might become isolated in order to keep our deficits hidden or we may become paranoid in order to place the problem outside ourselves rather than own up to the fact that it is our responsibility to face and manage.
Experiences of helplessness are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. They’re a necessary part of life—they come with the territory. Bodies age and hurt, mental faculties decline, and loved ones die. The solution, it seems to me, is to accept these things with an honesty tempered by great self-compassion. Such acceptance helps us learn to manage loss and disappointment with greater ease and also helps us accept the fact that sometimes we can’t alter the things that hurt us most.
The American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, put it best when he wrote what would eventually be called the “Serenity Prayer,” repeated in 12-step recovery groups every day around the world: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Compassionate self-acceptance of our failures and successes are the royal road to growth and peace of mind.