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.