While many view this time of year as the season of resolve, I can’t help but see it as a time for regret. January means the end of holiday travel, the beginning of tax preparations, the onslaught of best-of lists in which no creative work of yours or mine merits any mention at all. It’s the month for recalling the refrigerators you did not clean, the parties you did not host, the mountains you did not climb, the love you did not make manifest.
Yesterday I received this message: “Although we did not select your manuscript for publication, we believe in your work and we wanted to let you know that it did make it to our final round.” This was not a letter from one of the big-five publishers or a prestigious prize committee. It came from a team of anonymous editors at a fledgling literary press attached to a small Midwestern university.
I’ve been working on this manuscript off and on for twenty-five years, and have received perhaps a half-dozen such rejections—along with many, many less-complimentary assessments—so the sense of failure is nothing new. Despite what some in high office would like you to believe, no one succeeds all the time. There are a few people who attempt great things and occasionally achieve them—Maggie Nelson, Meb Keflezighi, and Ted Chiang come immediately to mind—and others who feel no need to make any attempt at all. Then there are those of us who keep trying and floundering and failing, despite the muttering voice in our heads that repeats and repeats and repeats: give it up already.
That people like us continue to persevere is not evidence of insanity but a triumph of thick skin and hardheadedness. The greatest proportion of humans will set no records: neither in book sales, nor audience numbers, nor age-group endurance races. Yes, there are shameful majorities, but this is not one of them.
I am happiest when working, and have done most of my best work when, to an outside observer, I might appear distracted and irritable, even mildly depressed. In order to maintain that peak state of forward-looking uncertainty, I try to run a few miles most days, cook my own meals, and limit my intake of coffee and gin. Still, there are times when even the most well-meaning routines are of no avail.
Under the influence of prolonged and repeated failure, even the sturdy among us can fall into a slough of despond. This is not the sort of mood that responds to a night out with friends or a long walk with the dog. Neither is it the kind that demands chemical intervention and cognitive behavior therapy (although I have tried both). This form of depression is an auto-immune disease of the soul. The character traits that once served to buffer you against the world—stubborn resilience, for instance, and the sort of selective blindness that allows you to pursue seemingly impossible goals—now actively strive to enhance your despair.
Which can make most self-help regimens sound ludicrous, even absurd. For example, consider this advice from Marie Kondo about choosing happiness:
Once you’ve pinpointed your problems, identify specific solutions. For each problem, assign a concrete task such as “contact and consult a professional” or “reply immediately with an email.” These actions should be as clear and specific as possible. Indeed, the ultimate goal of organizing is to remedy the state of untidiness and prevent its recurrence.
When choosing these actions, you must never forget to ask yourself whether each action sparks joy and makes sense for you. Once you’ve compiled a list, all you have to do is serenely execute these tasks.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but to my mind the words “serenely execute” evoke a murderous lunacy. In any case, it seems obvious that Kondo’s admirable sensibility resides somewhere at the far distant edge of the galaxy. The rest of us can strive to attain that “joyful feeling of lightness, as though I have completely finished tidying up my home,” but we are no more likely to succeed on her terms than we are to crack the Billboard Hot 100 or a sub-three-hour marathon.
There is much wisdom to be found in books, of course. But we should be wary of advice that makes us think that our failures arise not from any weakness in the author’s prescriptions but from our unwillingness to believe in them uncritically. Which reminds me of a radio interview I heard in January a few years back, with writer Jessica Lamb-Shapiro.
LAMB-SHAPIRO: And so it’s not saying, you know . . . if this doesn’t work, I guess I had a bad idea. It’s saying no, if this doesn’t work, you didn’t try hard enough and you didn’t do well enough. So in a sense, it becomes a completely closed system.
TERRY GROSS: Like if you don’t believe in me, that’s your flaw.
LAMB-SHAPIRO: Exactly. Like only you can fail; the system can’t fail. . . And so, in a weird way, I respect its evil genius, but I don’t think it’s particularly fair or thoughtful.
The fact is that everything fails: you, me, them, and all of their evil-genius systems included. Failure occurs despite our best intentions, bravely focused efforts, and most sophisticated polling metrics. It’s an inescapable possibility in every creative endeavor, from raising a well-adjusted child to turning out a batch of lemon-poppyseed muffins.
And because failure is, on the whole, much less fun than success, it’s no wonder that we have regrets. Regret, at this time of year, is a perfectly natural and forgivable response to our doomed attempts to make sense of the world. No need to own up—because we already own it. The trick is to treat regret just like every other disposable good in our possession: a moth-eaten sweater, say, or a worn-out toothbrush.
Help, when it arrives, might come from a solitary bird in a darkening sky, or the warmth of fingertips on a bare instep, from a melancholy progression of diminished chords, or the sweet red stain of a pomegranate. The important thing is to help ourselves to these nourishing treasures—then get back to work.