"Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew..." Thus begins Jack Gilbert's poem, rich in metaphor and description and memory. It is one of my favorites. Recently I was asked about another line in the poem and whether I agree that, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly." The simple answer is that I do, but the answer is not really simple at all.
In the last year I have learned that anything worth doing is worth doing without fear of failing or, put another way, doing it "badly." We need to have the experience and, no matter the outcome, we will be better for the doing. Still, sometimes it looks like we have a very long way to fall indeed. There is no way around it, though the outcome of the landing remains uncertain.
Personally I was only able to overcome the fear of failing, of falling, by losing everything and redefining what failing means.
So much of our framework for success comes from external sources - family, society, career - and there comes a point when we reach the precipice and choose to stay on the ground, the safe option perhaps, or leap off of the cliff and take responsibility for our own definitions and actions. As a child I always heard I had such "potential." That word - potential - became a goal to attain. At the same time it was an unattainable, amorphous measure of success that always felt like it was something in the future, something I was striving for but never quite reaching. By the time I saw that my safety net had become a noose, I had created a persona that was so much a part of my identity that I didn't know who I was without the definitions of career and marriage and home. In order to fly I had to recreate myself. I had to define what I wanted, just for myself, and I had to learn to take care of myself instead of someone else, which made me really look at my choices and desires. Working on a portrait project last year I began asking women what they would do if they weren’t afraid and I realized that day by day I was making decisions as if I weren’t afraid, even if I was.
It was the hardest and best year of my life.
In the second month of this new year, the question of identity and definitions has come back again in a few contexts and I am revisiting how I see myself and how I interact with the world. I know that I define myself by my actions - how I live my life, what I create, how I connect with my community and with the world, what I leave behind in each experience, and why I see the way that I do. I fall and I fly, I do things well and badly, and I live my story with passion and integrity every day.
So, I will ask again: What would you do if you weren’t afraid of failing?
Failing and Flying by Jack Gilbert
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew. It's the same when love comes to an end, or the marriage fails and people say they knew it was a mistake, that everybody said it would never work. That she was old enough to know better. But anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Like being there by that summer ocean on the other side of the island while love was fading out of her, the stars burning so extravagantly those nights that anyone could tell you they would never last. Every morning she was asleep in my bed like a visitation, the gentleness in her like antelope standing in the dawn mist. Each afternoon I watched her coming back through the hot stony field after swimming, the sea light behind her and the huge sky on the other side of that. Listened to her while we ate lunch. How can they say the marriage failed? Like the people who came back from Provence (when it was Provence) and said it was pretty but the food was greasy. I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.