Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Day I Was Defeated

It was another rainy April day 30 years ago. The gray skyscrapers blended with the gray rain from the gray skies as I walked away from the courthouse in the gloom of my dark thoughts. My mind searched frantically through its database of excuses and scapegoats but found none worthy of the occasion. I had no one to blame but myself. I had blundered badly in the important courtroom battle. I had failed miserably. Worse, I had failed others in the process. I could not ignore that reality. I saw in their eyes. I had not prepared my clients to lose. I had not prepared myself for that disappointment. I wanted to cry out in self-pity, rail against God because of my weakness, put on the proverbial sackcloth and sit in gray ashes in grief and public humiliation I was worthy of. But it all seemed wrong, selfish, melodramatic and too easy. Defeat had come at my own hands, as it unavoidably would from time to time over the next 3 decades.
Today I shuddered noticeably as I recognized the same sinking sensation and heard the same self-indictment, "You failed!". In my business this condemnation must be recognized for what it is: fact, as inescapable as my humanity. I have often felt the fear of failure, the specter of imminent defeat. And when it comes I remember its sting, its harsh criticism or its wagging finger reminding me that, "You could have done better". I will never grow accustomed to that sick feeling of shame. And that is a good thing.

I once heard a senior lawyer who, with chest puffed out as if to show off a string of shiny medals, announced to me, “I have never lost in court and I never will”. Immediately, I found myself both jealous, wanting to be able to make that claim, and disgusted, for I knew he was a braggart barking for attention, a liar covering his lackluster record or a coward for having never taken on a difficult case. Perhaps he was all three. In the final analysis, I felt sorry for him, for I had learned little in my successes, but a great deal through my failures.

In a sense, Parkinson's disease is akin to the type of failure I had experienced in courtrooms, negotiations and other legal “competitions”. Perhaps my prior failures had prepared me for grappling with this neurological giant. My past experiences have taught me to process "failure" carefully by asking:

1. Is “failure” just a feeling or a fact? Is it prematurely anticipated or fully realized? Is it a realistic assessment or simply the fruit of my excessive expectations? Many times PD leads to feelings, fearsome and foreboding.
2. Is “failure” stopping me from enjoying things? If, as is often the case, my sense of failure is more a feeling than a fact, it may still need to be vented. I have tried to find a nondestructive way to balance out the heaviness with something that refreshes me, like taking a ride on my motorcycle.

3. Have I learned anything? Most of my past failures proved to be invaluable experiences, teaching me things that I could only learn through a sense of defeat. Parkinson's is the same. While I may not feel like it, I try to redefine my losses as lessons from which much can be gleaned. This process typically sends me on a search for the treasure that may lie buried in the muck of my embarrassment. Parkinson's disease can yield much reward.

4. Is it necessary to beat myself up over “failure”? Pummeling myself over some human frailty rarely accomplishes anything, although failures can leave unnecessary "bruises" and scars if simply suppressed. For me, it seems necessary that I find a place (like a journal) to express my frustration. But having done so, such recognition time must lead me away from mourning to moving on. I need to take responsibility for my failures; I also need to forgive myself, let myself off the hook a little, and go forward.

As Alexander Pope said in 1711 in “An Essay on Criticism”:

To err is human, to forgive divine…
Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.

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