I’ve seen the phrase “failed buddhist” tossed around metaphysical writings now and again. The root idea is that no one can succeed at Buddhism, because to aim at success is to miss the point of being Buddhist. That concept always resonated with me. The phrase makes a good jumping off point for explaining something that’s been sloshing around in my skull lately.
I am a Failed Lifer, at least when if comes to having ambitions, or even career goals. I am phenomenally good at planning activities like trips or projects. My record speaks to that. I am a first-rate planner, but goals? Pfft. I suck at goals.
My first experience with this deficiency came in first grade. The class was given an exercise in creativity. Crayons were involved. The assignment? “What do you want to be when you grow up? Draw what you will be doing.” Easy-peasy for most of the class. People went to work with their periwinkle blues and their burnt siennas. Astronaut pictures abounded. Firefighters. Teachers. Garbage haulers and construction workers. One lion tamer.
The idea flummoxed me. I didn’t know the word at six, but I knew that dangling sense of bewilderment. I looked into the chasm between my comprehension of the task and my inability to complete it and knew myself defeated. How should I know what would I be doing as a grownup? I wasn’t grown-up yet. More importantly, why would I want to know? What if I wanted to change my mind? What if I wanted to do lots of things?
It made absolutely no sense then, and still doesn’t today. I don’t do goals. I don’t ask for things I don’t need to survive. I prefer to let life come to me, or pass me by. If you are now feeling annoyed with me for proclaiming my lazy lack of drive, if you are now feeling that smug superiority of the goal-directed, active and assertive, you may find the exits in front, to the sides, and behind you. Buh-bye.
Some people need to map out their lives. Plenty of people seek external motivation. Some people enjoy it. I respect that. Why can’t the rest of the world respect that it isn’t for everyone? All the inspirational quotations and Rules For A Happy Life guides tell me that I am a failure.
Here’s a sampling of the advice I am incompetent at following: Don’t wait for life to happen. Get out there and grab life by the horns. Forward momentum. Sharks never sleep. Don’t let grass grow under your feet. Know what you want to do, or you’ll never achieve anything. Go after what you want, or you’ll never get it.
“Be all you can be” is a reasonable directive. All the rest rely on outside measurements of success and external motivators, and those drive me crazy. When I set practical goals and charge into the fray of achievement, asking and grabbing and putting myself out there, I go from being a balanced, happy, energetic creative human being to a stressed, angry, bitter mess in short order. Competitive as I am, the rat race kills me. Rats bite. Races are exhausting. Give me a good long solitary stroll any day. When I march to the beat of my quieter heart, I am the best person I can become.
I acknowledge that I am not stretching myself to my limits. I defy the judgmental conclusion that I am wasting myself by so doing, or that turning away from financial gain is inherently inferior. I reject the idea that certain genetic traits and cultural conditions require me to push myself. Diffidence is not laziness. I work hard. I enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. I thrive on it, in fact. The point is, that I enjoy that satisfaction regardless of the job being done. Even dull, smelly manual labor? Yes. I don’t take away from it the soaring ecstasy of a creative endeavor, but yes, even scutwork satisfies me.
My inability to master ambition’s active drive has real, concrete consequences. It has limited my job opportunities, my income and my social standing. I accept this. Maybe I would choose differently if I came form a different background. Maybe I would behave differently if I were someone else. How is that relevant? I’m not someone else. (Duh.) Telling me I don’t appreciate what I have is ludicrous on the face of it and insulting at the root, and yet that is the usual judgment. Newsflash to those disgusted by my lack of drive: my choices are mine. They are valid. I refuse to accept my life as inadequate because it does not match your idea of usefulness. Not even when my inner voice whispers the litany of failure to me, late at night and on sunny afternoons.
Back in first grade, I played with my crayons, drew a horse. I always drew horses. If I wanted to be anything, it was a horse, but I knew that wasn’t a realistic option. When prompted relentlessly by the teacher to declare myself, I drew a stick-figure rider and stated that I wanted to be a circus performer when I grew up. It was bullshit, of course. I was plagiarizing the lion tamer.
What did I want to be when I grew up? I had no clue. I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I am older and, I hope, wiser. I know that it’s the wrong question for me. I didn’t want to be something when I was a child, and I never will. For me, all I want is to simply be, to experience the now and the here, to learn and to share.
Every day, I am myself. Mission accomplished, I guess.