How to fail at everything and die of cancer

If you take your eyes off it, it grows.

The mighty dieffenbachia

Okay, now I have your attention, I’ll hasten to add that I have not had a cancer setback; my numbers are still excellent. I’m still in hearty, robust remission, and long may it continue. No, what’s happened is that I’ve failed to even get an interview for the full time version of a job I’ve been doing as a casual for nine years. People often tell me how well I do this job. Not even an interview.

So what I’m experiencing now is a fit of pique, an imaginative foray into spitting the dummy, a brooding, repetitive thought pattern that circles like a plane unable to land. The landing place is, of course, the city of Disappointment in the country of Humiliation. I must check in, once more, to Heartbreak Hotel. I must wander Disappointment’s crepuscular streets. I step over the body of a young man who has died of lítost. Lítost is a Czech word, defined by Milan Kundera as “a state of torment” brought about by “the realisation of one’s inadequacy or misery”. The young man has jumped from the high window above, but nobody has come to take his body back to his hometown because everyone else is dealing with their own lítost and there’s no energy to do the paperwork.  A doleful waitress – she might have been a star – doles out a plate of comfort food, beige and yellow. We exchange a rueful glance.

But then I think of the dieffenbachia in my living room. This is a plant that laps up being indoors and doesn’t mind long stretches without water. I would certainly never pot it up, fertilise it or change the soil. For ten years it has grown vigorously and fulsomely, shooting straight for the ceiling. It has produced two sturdy daughter plants. This plant knows nothing of failure. It is successful, and because it lives in my house, I can claim its success as my own. Look at the plant I’ve grown!

And I think of my friend Sue. We started treatment together, finished treatment together. My cancer didn’t come back, but hers did.  She’s in deep trouble. She has four children, three of them still teenagers at school. I could claim success in this vile race for survival but even my black humour can’t go quite that black.

Success is real, failure is real, but it’s clear that these are not, and never have been, fair. Okay, I’m not casting aspersions on my selection committee (although it is tempting in these hours of pique) but the bigger picture reminds us that it’s all bullshit, really. Some people are dieffenbachias. They sit there with their vegetable success and congratulate themselves. Others – like the ten year old Indigenous girl who committed suicide in Western Australia – are struggling to secure the basic requirements of a life worth living, and blame themselves.

Google has no idea about this, though. If you ask Google for advice – as we must, because Google seems to hold the Wisdom of the Ages, and because Google is always there, and we are lazy – you will get this:

– Why success always starts with failure
– 50 famously successful people who failed at first
– Failure Is Feedback: How 5 Billionaires had To Fail To Succeed

Note how we could only come up with five billionaires? Compared to how many people living on earth? The fact is that most of us are – and must be, by Google’s definition – losers. It’s a horrible word to apply to your aunt, your partner, your children, the waitress at your local cafe, the neighbour who checks your mail when you’re on holiday, the unpublished novelist, the bedroom singer-songwriter, the swimmer who came second, the Aboriginal kid living in the remote community next to the iron ore mine making billions for one of those five billionaires.

Oh the chip! The chip on my shoulder! I’m actually laughing at myself. Could be time for a third cup of instant and to finish reading Sarah Bakewell’s exquisite new book The Existentialist Cafe, dotted through with some exceedingly consoling crochet.

7 thoughts on “How to fail at everything and die of cancer

  1. Anna Maria

    This is a clear-eyed beautiful and affirming piece of writing. It shows the writer courageously working through a major disappointment, with it’s all too human initial anger (and justified too) and then somehow, with wisdom I envy, compassionately holding that disappointment and fear in context of an enlarged understanding of reality. Didn’t expect to find such a sophisticated piece of writing as I did my social media trawl today. I’m very grateful to have found it.

  2. Joan bergen

    I’ve reread your blog numerous times as it gives me great pleasure, it is just so delightful!!! jub

  3. Anne Powles

    Applying for one’s own job is the worst thing ever! I have experienced that once and did the worst interview I have ever done. And writing the application is awkward too. A horrible situation.

  4. John Merkel

    I’m not sure if I feel like less of a failure now, or just less alone with my failure. Either way I feel better for the read. And also, reading your piece reminded me of our night of hilarity with Owen and Yvonne and Tracey … And Karen. That must have counted as a major mark of success. Xx

  5. Tracey C

    Welcome to a mighty club of the ones the comm school failed to hold on to. It is perhaps a gift. As you are to all of us.

  6. Kay B

    I feel so lucky now not to be a billionaire…
    If this is failure then.. well.. I choose my failed life.
    Thanks so much again Tracey for your .. to try to find the write noun or adjective makes me feel, next to you.. like.. a… failure as a writer… so thanks for your… er .. words
    XX

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