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Success or Failure

What world the world be like if we lost the psychological imprint imparted early on of the necessity to ‘succeed,’ and the horrors of ‘failure.’ Right here, I’m writing to you about a new idea that may be successfully transmitted to you. What if I don’t care if it turns out to be an utter failure, and the message is lost?

You may be sitting there, consciously or not, wondering whether reading further on is a “waste of your time” (a failure). In fact, I know this is the case. Time is limited after all. It’s necessary to assess such things in this way. I also know that it’s possible you have decided to keep reading because you think there might be something I’m getting at, some punchline that might bring you some new perspective in life or some ability to transcend suffering (a success).

If we begin to see how ingrained ‘wanting to succeed’ really is, (geeze I’ll admit how present it is in me even now) as well as its opposite drive ‘to avoid failure’, then we will have to inevitably ask, are these things in us to our benefit, and is it possible to experience life partially or fully free of them?

First of all, this is a tricky subject. If freedom from “success and failure” were taken to be some kind of transcendent “success” then I’m afraid we will have committed a transcendent failure in our attempt to escape this paradox. How can we do anything without calling it a success or a failure?

Let’s take a break from this paradox for a moment by looking at something else that will tie in to our discussion a little bit later. It’s something we all take for granted as parents, but it is quite familiar: Our tendency/need to “reward” and “punish” behavior.

Let’s look at rewards for a moment. You may think a typical reward is something tangible, like permission to use the iPad after completing a math quiz. But in fact, rewards can be literally anything, and we use them more often than you realize. A smile, pat on the back, encouraging words, a deliberate nod of applause, all these and countless more nuanced expressions can constitute directed rewards designed to support behaviors we deem appropriate.

We like to believe that we “educate morality” in this straightforward manner, but just think of the difference between a directed, calculated smile showing your moral approval, and the feeling evoked when you witness your child do something you know deep down to be beautiful. The beauty of authentic appreciation is how it can live in a glowing silence where on a soul level you know nothing was lost by it. And if the child sees you’re affection and feels it, she will know what words cannot convey by their own power.

Let’s look at punishment. Banned from video games as a result of misbehavior–a clear punishment. A glaring stare of disapproval combined with a somatic, bodily declaration that says, “I don’t like what you did” such as a tilt of the head, or splaying of the hands and arms, also punishment. Your facial demeanor and body expression that goes from outright rejection, to bewilderment, then to partial acceptance as the child modifies his actions may appear like a tool of moral education, but it’s undeniable that this tool comes with a cost, registered in each parent on a deep level. We don’t like having to do it, but we accept it as a “necessary” evil.

What if it were unnecessary? And what if the cost it enacts is perniciously unseen? Imagine the following:

You’re busy with something important, and your child asks for your attention and your time, but you tell him “I’m sorry, but no, I can’t right now.” For you, no intention to ‘punish’ was present, but if you’re methodology of punishment included facial expressions, tones of voice, words like “no” and “can’t,” and the withdrawal of attention in the past, then what’s the child left but to think he’s being punished here for what amounts to wanting your attention at a bad time.

The thing about rewards and punishments is that they’re mostly unconscious in origin. Deliberate rewards and deliberate punishments are far outweighed by the unconscious ones that occur all the time under the radar. I believe if these unconscious impulses were wiped out of a parent child relationship from the beginning, then the conscious ones would be wiped out as well. That is to say, the parent would never think to employ “rewards” or “punishments” as modification tools, or if he or she did choose to employ it at an age where it might be warranted such as 9 months or older, the very first use would elicit such a disheartening response from the child that the parent would immediately shudder and realize how wanton a use of power it was and that the desired effect in behavior modification was not worth the emotional damage.

Of course such a hypothetical is hard to stretch, because to think of such a parent child relationship is to think outside the construct of social life of all-known history. The reality is we’ve been using punishment (and reward) to such a degree and for such an extended period of time, both unconsciously and consciously, that they’ve been normalized. The child’s response, even by the young age of self-awareness, has been fully incubated in our unconscious impulses of approval and disapproval. An alternative kind of co-existence is unknown, the model relationship of healthy moral education (whatever that might look like) has been lost to countless generations of habituation to a different, and familiar method.

We don’t know how life could exist without reward and punishment. In a single stroke, we can exonerate ourselves and our methods. Nature, we say, is dangerous. Nature punishes. We as parents remind our young and naive infants and children of this reality, before reality itself harms them beyond repair. What hand, if not our own, could guide our child to morality and safety, unless it adequately mimics the harshness of this world? Was the world so harsh as to warrant physical abuse (the widely normalized form of punishing children in most of Western history)? If no, surely the world is harsh enough to warrant slighter methods, such as psychological detachment, words of condemnation, withdrawal of privileges, scornful visages, and the rest of our so called punishments in disguise. Hopefully we have measured the world accurately enough that our reflective mirroring of harshness on our children is justified. Otherwise we must admit: we are slaves to a habit of reward where we know deep down rewards are cheep, and punishment where we know on a soul level, punishments are soulless. Have we led ourselves into complicity? Have we rationalized away our most beloved relationships?

But the more we ponder this question the more we blame ourselves for what we feel is amiss. A self punishment that no reward can undue. For in the paradox of our ways, we are bound to fall back in to the label whose depth is quietly waiting for us wherever our grief is near, a label that’s all to familiar and comforting even while it’s disheartening and disdained; “failure.”

And here we are again, back to the layer of our subconscious operating system whose currency is called “success,” and whose companion is “failure.” That system of control that’s impossible to escape should we ever dare to overcome its paradox.

Are you a failure, parent? And what does it even mean to succeed?

Uh oh, I can see it happening already… my desire to succeed. To reach that glorified place. And what a bright idea, I could say to myself, to proffer this unique and cunning advice; to drop at the door when you leave in the morning and at that same door when you arrive back home, all your successes and all your failures, so that the 3-D world outside and in, is not tainted by a 2-D virus of the mind, that liken to an annoying squeak of an old rusty hinge. And to ask yourself, with these ills so confined and without much care for an answer: Is there not a better way to grow a garden, than to deprive it of water one day, only to flood it the next?

leave your success at the door when you leave in the morning, and to leave your failures at that same door when you come home. To let them both stay there in 2-d, confined to door on a hinge that’s as easy to open as it is to close.