If my nerve had not failed that day when I wanted to show off in front of my brothers, by leaping from the top of the railroad trestle into the river, I would be dead. Instead, I climbed down and then dived headfirst from the foot of a piling — into about 3 feet of water. The rocks lying on the riverbed left long scratches covering my entire abdomen, from shoulder to hip.
If Yahweh had succeeded in creating two perfectly docile, obedient creatures in Adam and Eve, they would have lived out their lives, naked and dumb, in a fruitful paradise. But he failed. And from that failure: all human inventiveness and creativity.
If Einstein had obtained a teaching position, he would not have accepted a position as a patent clerk, where he evaluated proposals relating to transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time. And then what? Here’s Peter Galison, “Einstein’s Clocks: The Place of Time,” Critical Inquiry 26 (2000) 355-389:
For in the electrodynamics of moving bodies Einstein had a problem that had troubled him on and off for some seven years, a problem that was with increasing force agonizing the leading physicists of the day. Meanwhile, all around him, literally, was the burgeoning fascination with electro-coordinated time. Every day Einstein took the short stroll from his house, left down the Kramgasse, to the patent office; every day he must have seen the great clock towers that presided over Bern with their coordinated clocks, and the myriad of street clocks branched proudly to the central telegraph office. After all, he had to walk under one of the most famous of them, the Zeitglockenturm, and by many others. Sometime in the middle of May 1905 … he and his closest friend, Michel Besso, cornered the electromagnetism problem from every side. “Then,” Einstein recalled, “suddenly I understood where the key to this problem lay.” He skipped his greetings the next day when he met Besso: “‘Thank you; I’ve completely solved the problem.’ An analysis of the concept of time was my solution. Time cannot be absolutely defined, and there is an inseparable relation between time and signal velocity.”
From the time our eyes flutter open in the morning until we lay our heads on our pillows 16 or 18 hours later, we are failing. Again and again. In every way.
We fail in the most basic way you can imagine. Say you’re standing in your kitchen looking at your coffeemaker, waiting to get that first hit of caffeine. Unless I’ve failed to understand this correctly — ha ha, good one, Jim — the coffeemaker that you see is only an approximation of what is actually sitting on your counter. The photoreceptors in our eyes do not work perfectly. So our brains have to fill in the gaps, correct distortions, etc. And of course, they do not do that flawlessly.
We are failing even we think we’re succeeding. Here’s John Doe at the club playing a round of golf with his buddies. He tees up his Titleist, swings, hits a hole-in-one. Success! One more victory in the charmed life of John Doe: student body president, captain of the team, CEO, member of the one-percent. Meanwhile, his wife teeters on the edge of exhaustion, toiling away as the sole engaged parent of their children, who naturally have a thousand different problems and challenges to meet, even as she attempts to take care of herself and pursue some of her own interests.
If you could see into the hearts and minds of other people, what would you see? In too many people, misery caused by the delusion that they are failing where other people are succeeding, that they are falling further and further behind, that they have somehow failed themselves, because they have not attained some self-imposed goal or aspiration.
In truth, the whole shebang is mostly a flop. All we can do is revel in it. Embrace it. Look at each other and laugh until our sides ache. Because the only thing we can be certain to succeed at is doing nothing at all.