I read a sign today in SSC that I found rather amusing, tickled my fancy.
“Prose Before Hoes”
It was followed by a clip-art image of William Shakespeare and the words: “Submit to Firethorne by March 8th.” For anyone unaware, Firethorne is the Gustavus Literary Publication that is student made, developed, and produced. Basically, it contains short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography, sculpture, and mixed media written and developed by students. It’s a neat publication that I have rather enjoyed reading over the course of my four years on campus. It may surprise some of you, though it certainly won’t shock others, that I have never once submitted a piece of writing to Firethorne. A little odd, right? I mean, I share pretty much everything I feel with the world wide web and exercise little restraint in expressing what the world feels like at any given moment on any given day during any given situation. I’m pretty open to letting the world know how Josh Plattner is feeling, doing, and functioning.
I’m not so keen to do so when there’s the possibility of rejection, of discard, of “not-quite-enough.” I don't like to put myself in vulnerable positions. It probably comes from my fear of failure.
I have this very distinct memory of going to church school when I was 8th Grade.
Church school, for those not privy to the practice, was a program at WHA Middle School that allowed students to leave campus once a week—Wednesdays, of course; had to line up with Youth Group night!—and attend their church institution for an hour of lessons, worship, and prayer. Yes, yes, yes I’m from the strangest, smallest, most oppressive town in Northern Minnesota. Can your city compete with a pastor who takes attendance, alerts your parents of any absence, and then berates you for your lack of connection to your spirituality?
I was 13. I was pubescent. I was confused as hell—more or less—at every single moment of my life. I was confused about my friends, my relationships, my family, my sexuality, my faith, and my body. I was a wreck. When I think about all of those conflicting feelings of fear and pride and loathing and worthlessness and joy and desire I only remember that one day of the week that I saturated myself with religious indoctrination: Church school day.
I can hear John, our youth pastor and facilitator, asking “What do you fear?” We go around in a circle, everyone sharing the animals, feelings, abstractions, scenarios, and experiences that threatened the sense of safety we each held. It’s my turn and I am sitting next to Sarah Johnson, one of my oldest and dearest friends. I hear John ask, “Josh, what do you fear?”
I don’t respond. I cannot find the words.
“What do you fear?”
I fear my own mind, John.
“What makes you afraid?”
I am afraid of the trapped feelings in my heart and my head that cannot be released. I am afraid of my daily thoughts and urges that would set me on fire in this temple of purity, inside this sanctuary of grace. John 3:16 says that ‘God so loved the world he gave his...’
“What makes you scared?”
You. You make me scared. You and all of these eyes that drill in my arms and legs and chest. All of these eyes that connect to minds that know much more about me than I want you too. These minds that know so much without my own words. Isaiah 53:6 ‘All we, like sheep, have gone astray…’
“What keeps you up at night?”
The knowledge that no one in this room could look at me in the same way if I really answered your question. If I just told you the truth and forced you all to deal with the same religious dissonance I experience every fucking day of my life. 1 Corinthians 6:9 ‘The unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of…’
“What do you fear?”
“Moths,” I say. “They have death on their wings and make strange noises when they flutter around. I don’t like them. They’re frightening.”
And that’s it. We move on to Sarah.
“Sarah, what do you fear?”
She stands up to speak and she says, “I am afraid of failure.” She sits back in her chair and looks over at me with a frown.
There is no speaking after Sarah is back in her seat. Even the unruly kids, the ones who are here to get out of school for an hour a week, are silent. John’s mouth is gaping and someone finally cracks the painful noiselessness.
“Wow, that’s a good one, Sarah.”
It’s me. I can’t bare the quiet. I can’t sit in that green, metal bound chair and suffocate my brain with every thought that volleys between my ears. I will not allow it. I cannot for my own sanity ache in that moment any longer. I will not suffer the blanket heavy breathing while entwining thoughts of hatred and anxiety weave in and out of my mind, wrapping my fear in some reinforced cage of insidious, putrid ivy.
“It’s really thoughtful.”
“Thanks,” she says, “it’s true.” She shrugs and looks down at her fidgeting hands in her lap.
“I fear failure too.”
Sarah nods. “It’s much more rational than moths.”
The rest of that moment is lost and I like to think it’s just better that way. The important part is still fresh, still alive, still movinglivingbreathing inside of me. The quick movement of her lips, the falling hair in her eyes, the black sleek to her coat and the way it whisked as it moved: it’s all there. 14-year-old Sarah is right beside me, telling me to be braver, to challenge myself in ways I only could in those moments I imagined taking a stance and speaking up for myself.
In many ways, those moments of courage still only exist in the quiet minutes that I imagine myself as brave. Yet, I have learned over the years that being brave and losing your fear of failure are not the same principle. They are separate ideas; they are notions on their own and function independently. One can be brave and still fear failure, and one can certainly look failure in the eye without feeling a swell of courage.
When I reflect on this now, I surrender to the fact that failure, in most cases, is subjective. Sure, you can objectively fail a task, a test, or an exam, but, in most cases, you realize that failure is only defined by your own interpretation of success. Thing is: I set notoriously high standards. I expect a lot out of myself. And, often, climbing that perceived pillar of success is no more possible than failing at nothing.
Though easier said than done, perhaps it’s time to relax, to sway, to shrug the weight of the world off my all too self-burdened shoulders. Perhaps the idiom to err is human, to forgive divine warrants a little illumination. So, for tonight, I am exorcising the phobic presence of failure in favor of forgiving my shortcomings. I am rinsing the stink of self-doubt and deprecation and bathing in the knowledge that I am an engaging, charming, brilliant, and imperfect human being.
I encourage you to do the same.
Guess it’s time to start writing.