Man must, in order to survive, always be mindful of his impotence
Carl Gustav Jung, CW11: par. 579
The etymological root of the word failure is to be found in Old French falir, to “be lacking; to not succeed”. Through the failures in our life we are confronted with our lack and limits as beings. Failure is a teacher that reminds us that we’re merely human.
Today many of us fail to fail. We fear to consciously face our failures and to suffer its teachings. Partly to blame for this is our culture. In today’s (neo-)liberal discourse, failure has warped into its opposite. It has become a possibility for market success, an opportunity and thereby a non-failure.
To be human (and not a God) is to lack and this lack forms a fundament in human love and relationships. The one who is self-sufficient, doesn’t experience lack, doesn’t need, doesn’t love, doesn’t need love (read: Narcissism).
Failure when staying true to its original meaning (“lack, non-success”) is therefore not only a teacher of our impotence but also of our capacity to love. It’s our impotence that makes us love. This is why Jung in that introductory quote draws a link between lack and survival. It’s a reminder to avoid hubris and learn humility through our failures.
In psychoanalysis, the profession I practice (both as an analyst and patient), failures are viewed as utterly meaningful. A slip of the tongue reveals the intention of the unconscious part of our personality. There might be a reason for why you keep coming late to your sessions. Disturbing psychological symptoms can be understood as signs that something is going on behind the scenes, something that you’re still unconscious of.
Failures, just like accidents and trauma, can pause, change and even correct our life trajectory. That is if we don’t avoid the necessary pain that comes with it. The point is not – as the optimistic saying goes – that failure helps us grow, but rather shrink: A shrinkage into a more human and humble form, that can bring along with it some humility (a word etymologically linked to “humiliation”).
Failures, when experienced consciously and grieved, can be the birth of a more reflective and feeling-oriented capacity as a human being. Failures enter into our life and ask us to ponder the most essential of questions: How do I lack? How does this lack shape how I love? Do I love?
If we don’t learn to listen to the message of our failures the gods will punish us. When seduced by the siren song of the opportunities of progress and success to be found in our failures, we show resistance to the truth of our human existence as limited, impotent and imperfect.
The punishment is neurosis and psychological conflict. An intervention of the gods as an attempt at necessary psychological correction.
Their technique of correction has always been the worst type of torture. Prometheus got punished for hubris and creative transgressions by being chained to a rock and having an eagle eat up his liver. Every day the same terrible attacks. In the modern individual that same punishment is an obsessive compulsion that haunts all our waking hours (think: OCD or simply debilitating perfectionism).
King Oedipus understood too late how bad he failed in life. He had lived blinded by a Narcissism that did violence to both himself and others. Killing his father and marrying his mother. The story ends fittingly with how he blinds himself with two needles of his mother’s dress.
Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias wrote that the most unhappy ones in Hades are the uninitiated ones. They are sentenced to undergo the senseless repetitive compulsion of carrying water in a sieve and pouring it into a perforated jar.
These are stories, collective biographies that teach us the importance to wake up and face our failures more consciously and the danger of us not learning from them. We remain blinded by our narcissism, we’re leaking in our relationships, the inner critic keeps on attacking us. Failure is a teacher of how we lack and love and how to live, within a brief human existence.
Visit Jakob Lusensky’s counsellor profile on It’s Complicated here.