Epic Fails

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One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries is of fail­ure. I am three years old, and my sis­ter is ill. She has chicken pox and is ly­ing in her bed­room up­stairs, hot and cry­ing, the du­vet twisted around her small limbs, while my mother tries to soothe her by plac­ing a hand on her fore­head. My mother has cool palms that feel good against your skin when you’re sick.

I’m not used to see­ing my older sis­ter like this. There are four years be­tween us and she has al­ways struck me as the epit­ome of wis­dom. She is some­one I adore and ad­mire in equal mea­sure, the per­son who looks af­ter me and al­lows me to sit on her back while she crawls around on all fours pre­tend­ing to be a horse. The per­son who, be­fore I was born, told our par­ents firmly that she’d like a sis­ter, and could they get on with the busi­ness of pro­duc­ing one? When­ever my sis­ter draws a pic­ture or makes a cas­tle out of Lego, it’s al­ways so much bet­ter than

Jour­nal­ist and au­thor EL­IZ­A­BETH DAY has had a life­time of learning mo­ments, from break-ups to ca­reer slip-ups, but each “fail­ure” has armed her with knowl­edge, and a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of who she is and wants to be. Here, she re­flects on a vivid child­hood mem­ory mem­ory.

my own at­tempts, and I’ll lose my tem­per at this per­ceived in­jus­tice be­cause I so des­per­ately want us to be the same. My mother will have to re­mind me that I’m younger, and all I have to do is wait a few years to catch up. But I’m im­pa­tient and don’t want to wait. I want, as much as I’ve ever wanted any­thing, to be just like my sis­ter.

Now, see­ing her wet cheeks and pale face, I’m up­set and fret­ful. I don’t like her be­ing in any dis­com­fort. My mother is ask­ing my sis­ter what she’d like to make her feel bet­ter, and my sis­ter wails “a hot-wa­ter bot­tle” and I see a way I can help. I know where my mother keeps the hot-wa­ter bot­tles, and tod­dle off to the cup­board and pick out my favourite one, which has a furry cover made to look like a bear. I know that a hot-wa­ter bot­tle must be filled, as the name im­plies, with hot wa­ter. I take the bear to the bath­room, a place I as­so­ciate with the much-hated evenings my mother washes my hair and I fix my eyes on a crack in the ceil­ing un­til the un­pleas­ant task is com­pleted.

The only tap I can reach is the one in the bath­tub rather than the basin. Lean­ing over the enamel lip, I stretch for­wards to place the bot­tle un­der the noz­zle and turn on the tap with the red cir­cle, not the blue, be­cause I’ve learned that blue means cold. But I do not know I need to wait for the wa­ter to heat up. I imag­ine it just comes out, au­to­mat­i­cally, at the req­ui­site tem­per­a­ture.

When I try to put the cap back on, my stubby fin­gers can­not quite fas­ten it tightly enough. No mat­ter, I think – the most im­por­tant thing is to get this bot­tle to the in­valid as quickly as I pos­si­bly can so that she can start feel­ing bet­ter, stop cry­ing, and be­come my com­posed, calm and clever older sis­ter again.

Back in the bed­room, I hand the bot­tle to my sis­ter whose tears stop at the sight of it. My mother looks sur­prised and I feel proud that I’ve done some­thing she didn’t ex­pect. But al­most as soon as the bot­tle is in my sis­ter’s grip, the cap loosens and cold wa­ter pours out all over her py­ja­mas. She wails and the sound is worse than the cry­ing that came be­fore it.

“It’s c-c-c-cold!” she stut­ters, glar­ing at me with in­com­pre­hen­sion, and my mother starts strip­ping the sheets and telling her ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to be fine, and they both for­get I’m stand­ing there and I feel a swelling of acute shame in my chest and a ter­ri­ble sense of hav­ing let down the per­son I love most in the world when I was only try­ing to help, and I’m not sure what I’ve done wrong but I know this prob­a­bly isn’t how hot-wa­ter bot­tles are made.

My sis­ter re­cov­ered from chicken pox, no thanks to me, and I learned in the full­ness of time about boil­ing ket­tles and wait­ing a few sec­onds to pour the hot wa­ter care­fully in through the rub­berised neck, tightly wind­ing the cap back on af­ter you’d pressed out the air. I also learned that even if your in­ten­tions are good, the ex­e­cu­tion of a task can some­times be lack­ing if you don’t have the nec­es­sary ex­pe­ri­ence. This is one of the most vivid recol­lec­tions of my child­hood: clearly my fail­ure to help when I most wanted to made a big im­pact on me.

It wasn’t ac­tu­ally a big fail­ure, or an ex­cep­tional one, but then fail­ures don’t have to be no­table to be mean­ing­ful. As I got older, I would ex­pe­ri­ence greater fail­ures, which were harder to come back from. I failed ex­ams and a driv­ing test. I failed to make the boy I liked fancy me back. I failed to fit in at school. I failed to get to know my­self prop­erly in my twen­ties, ex­ist­ing in a suc­ces­sion of long-term re­la­tion­ships where I out­sourced my sense of self to an­other per­son.

I failed to un­der­stand, at the time, that peo­ple-pleas­ing was never go­ing to be a ful­fill­ing way to live. That in pleas­ing oth­ers, you end

“I failed to get to know my­self prop­erly in my twen­ties, ex­ist­ing in a suc­ces­sion of long-term re­la­tion­ships where I out­sourced my sense of self to an­other per­son.”

up fail­ing to please your­self. That in do­ing so, you’re try­ing to shore up your dwin­dling internal con­fi­dence by col­lect­ing the pos­i­tive opin­ions of oth­ers, with­out re­al­is­ing this never works; that it’s the equiv­a­lent of ig­nor­ing a fire-breath­ing dragon by light­ing a can­dle from its flame.

I failed at a mar­riage and was di­vorced by 36.

I failed to have the chil­dren I al­ways thought I wanted.

I failed, over and over again, at playing ten­nis with any de­gree of con­fi­dence.

I failed to ac­knowl­edge big, dif­fi­cult feel­ings such as anger and grief, pre­fer­ring in­stead to mask them with eas­ier, more pli­able emo­tions like sad­ness.

I failed by car­ing too much about the unim­por­tant stuff and things I could never hope to con­trol.

I failed to speak up and find my voice when I was be­ing taken ad­van­tage of at work and in my in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships.

I failed to love my own body. I fail still. That is a con­stant work in progress, but I love my body more than I used to and am grate­ful, now, for the honour of in­hab­it­ing this mirac­u­lous, func­tion­ing thing.

Self-ac­cep­tance is, I be­lieve, a qui­etly revo­lu­tion­ary act, but for years I failed even at that.

Along the way, I loved and I lost. I had my heart shat­tered. I changed jobs. I moved houses and coun­tries. I made new friends and shed old ones. I en­dured break­downs and break-ups.

I grew older. I came to un­der­stand my­self bet­ter. I fi­nally un­der­stood the im­por­tance of spend­ing money on wheeled suitcases and win­ter coats. As I write this, I’m ap­proach­ing my 40th birth­day, which is older than my mother would have been in that early mem­ory of hot-wa­ter bot­tles and sis­terly de­vo­tion. And if I’ve learned one thing from this shock­ingly beau­ti­ful ven­ture called life, it is this: fail­ure has taught me lessons I would never oth­er­wise have un­der­stood. I have evolved more as a re­sult of things go­ing wrong than when ev­ery­thing seemed to be go­ing right. Out of cri­sis has come clar­ity, and some­times even cathar­sis.

How to Fail: Ev­ery­thing I’ve Ever Learned from Things Go­ing Wrong by El­iz­a­beth Day (4th Es­tate, ap­prox €15) is out now. Catch El­iz­a­beth at Lis­towel Writ­ers’ Week on June 2, writ­er­sweek.ie.

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