Create a possibility, a commitment, a goal, put it out in the world, and its inevitable brethren—breakdowns and the idea that there shouldn’t be any—arrive right along with it. Breakdowns are a fact of life, and come packaged in a particular way: even though we know they’re inevitable (something we’re clear is going to happen at some point), we’re also surprised when they come up because we think they shouldn’t be happening in the first place. That particular dynamic causes upsets. Add in the reactions we have to it happening, and voila, the domino effect gets set in motion.
Breakdowns (whether over life’s unexpected setbacks, missed opportunities, love affairs gone bad) often carry with them some association with, or hint of, failure. When we set out to do or be something and our plans are thwarted or something “goes wrong,” there’s a disparity between what happened and what the possibility was. But instead of sorting out whatever happened, we often relate to the disparity as a statement about us—some shortcoming, some deficiency. Our identity, who we consider ourselves to be, jumps to front and center. Refrains like “What’s wrong with me?” “What’s wrong with it?” “What’s wrong with the ubiquitous ‘them’?” are the litanies we hear in our heads. In the answers to those questions, though, there aren’t any facts, or truths per se—there are only interpretations, judgments, and assessments. When we operate on top of disempowering assessments (of ourselves, others, particular situations), our ability to be gets diminished.
A perfect example is when I started doing triathlons. I’d always considered myself athletic, fast, could keep up with the best of them, etc. I started training, ramping up every week, and when the day of the triathlon came, I considered myself fit and ready. I saw myself crossing the finish line if not in the first 10%, at least in the top 20%. What happened, however, was a whole different matter—at some point, I realized I was going to finish maybe in the last 40%. The steep hills, the distance swimming, the miles in front of me never seemed to end. It was a bit embarrassing for me to see how far off I was, and I quickly fell into that old “what was I thinking?” refrain. It was one of those moments when you don’t know what to be in a dance with—the conversation in your head or the possibility. My disappointment actually had me question whether I’d continue doing triathlons, but what was worse was that this line of thinking began extending out to other areas of my life, insidiously shaping what I thought was possible. In retrospect, this was ridiculous, but there it was.
It’s this compounding effect (the breakdown about a breakdown, the upset about an upset) that is the problem, not that some thing in particular went wrong. Another way of saying it is, it’s the “failing to be” that takes us off course, not that “it failed.” When our commitment to creating something gets thwarted in some way, we can get frustrated, lower our expectations, accommodate, become resigned. As long as we keep identifying with our feelings and the circumstances, thinking that when things go wrong it is a statement about us, we pretty much preclude having a different outcome.
The notion of failure, as we all know, comes with baggage, and it’s hard to dislodge those associations. We think failure implies there’s a deficiency at some level, that the outcomes we’re after won’t be achieved, or that they will be jeopardized in some way. For the sake of this piece, let’s say that a failure is different or distinct from a breakdown. (In actuality though, both are assessments, interpretations, and only exist as a phenomenon of language.) But given there’s less baggage associated with the word “breakdown” (and because of that, more malleability), using that word offers a different clearing or space to address breakdowns effectively. So let’s just say for the moment that breakdowns (given they live in language) are a making up, an invention. They are a declaration of something missing, not necessarily followed by a “therefore” or a “because,” but just existing as themselves.
Breakdowns and upsets and disappointments—they’re not going away. But what we can do is leave behind old conversations like: “circumstances are a way because …” and its corollary “I am powerless because …” Intentionally listening for “what’s missing” might at first seem difficult, because it has that invalidating ring to it. But if instead of seeing what’s missing like it’s “too bad,” we can see it as a possibility, it can fundamentally alter the game. Instead of a “failure of being,” what’s there is the possibility of “inventing being.” Breakdowns as an invention, as a saying, as a making up, afford us a larger opening—power and freedom have room to emerge.
When we are up to something, and step outside the constraints of our circumstances, and stand for a possibility that we don’t know how to achieve, we don’t reference what’s possible against who we’d been or what had been done in the past, what’s predictable or expected, but rather against what we stand for and saw is possible. While this might sound simple, the transformative impact of seeing breakdowns this way is also enormously far-reaching. In my triathlon example, the transformative quality extended into my professional life, being a dad, having a fantastic relationship with my wife—far beyond the possibility of that one circumstance.
When we see this, life begins to be seen and related to differently. Our relationship to possibility moves from an abstract ideal to a viable, living reality—we find ourselves taking bold, practical action that gives what we stand for the hard edge of making something happen.
When the possibility of power begins to arise, it can get a bit scary. What if things go wrong? What if they work brilliantly? An almost automatic, built-in lock on “no power” comes into play. I remember reading that within a few months of Václav Havel’s ascension as president of Czechoslovakia, when the euphoria of the Velvet Revolution began to fade, Havel said that he felt “strangely paralyzed.” “At the very deepest core of this feeling there was, ultimately, a sensation of the absurd: what Sisyphus might have felt if one fine day his boulder stopped, rested on the hilltop, and failed to roll back down. It was the sensation of a Sisyphus mentally unprepared for the possibility that his efforts might in fact succeed, a Sisyphus whose life had lost its old purpose.”*
Breakthroughs are usually preceded by uncertainty and breakdowns. If we limit the ambiguity, the floundering about, the experimentation, we limit what’s possible and deprive ourselves of the raw stuff from which possibilities arise. Having power, success, and freedom is a lot more risky than having no power. Again, we’ll for sure encounter breakdowns on the way, and go through the practice and add the steps in—but we’re adding the steps into the possibility, not trying to build towards the possibility. There is a transcending of the ordinary rules. The ordinary rules are: we learn a little bit, then we learn a little bit more, then more, and finally we know enough. But when standing for and coming from a possibility, life begins to be seen and related to differently. Conditions and circumstances begin to reorder and realign themselves inside of what we stand for. We find ourselves acting in wholly new ways—taking bold, practical action that gives what we stand for the hard edge of making something happen.
*Adapted from David Remnick, “Exit Havel,” The New Yorker, 2-17-03.