Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Failure

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 11, 2006

When I was in school, I got bullied. A lot. No need to go into the details; suffice to say that every day was an exercise in a new type of fear.

Ralph James was the most popular kid in the class. He will always be my hero. Part way through my high school years, without explanation, he taught me to box. I thought we were just playing, but we'd strap on our hockey helmets and go at it.

A little later I encountered one of the bullies on the street. I realized by now that I could fight, and decided to stand up for myself. We confronted each other. I took a swing at him.

BAM! The blow to my left forehead stunned me. I had not even landed a punch, and was staggering in the street. I lurched to the side, and went away as fast as I could.

Failure. I could not defend myself against the bullies.

But there was a difference after that. Perhaps a tacit recognition around the town that I would fight back, that I would not allow myself to be pushed around. That though I may be bullied again, there would always be a price to pay. And slowly, the bullying faded away.

My boxing lessons carry another lesson as well.

A while later, Ralph and I were messing around in the barn with Dean, just jumping around in the hayloft. For some reason, I decided to fight Dean, and was able to beat him. Dean and Ralph both asked me to stop, but I wouldn't.

I went around Ralph's place after that, but it was never the same. And I saw the other side of it. The hurt and resentment. And though again it took me a while to sort this out, I realized how wrong I had been. A different sort of failure.

The question of how to get into the Zone is like that, it seems to me. How do I defend myself? How do I learn to fight by not fighting? And there is no easy answer.

It was just last year or so I went to my high school reunion. There was no sign of the four years I spent in that place; it was as though I had been erased from its history.

And from my class, exactly one person attended the reunion. It was Dean.

Dean is a beef farmer now, living on a farm just outside Metcalfe, in a place very much the same as those early days. He greeted me warmly, with fond memories. He was happy to see me. Sometimes you just don't know.

I left my high school reunion with a sense of bitterness, with a sense of loss. How could I have been erased from history? But as time went by, I realized, that the one thing I had really needed from that reunion had been there. That my one real failure had been erased.

The mark you make on history doesn't matter. What other people do - and whether you can succeed or fail in relation to them - doesn't matter.

Your only real failures are failures of character. And even in these, the world can be surprisingly forgiving.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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