31 July 2015
Imagine you’re a brilliant mathematician, working on a formula that no one else has ever solved. You’ve spent years on this problem—lost significant others, family support, professional credibility, funding—but you’re certain the effort will garner you the Nobel Prize. Late one night, the answer hits you. You go to your classroom and fill the floor-to-ceiling chalkboard full of equations and scribbles. Exhausted, you slump over your desk and drop into a sleep of contented triumph. You wake an hour later to find the chalkboard wiped clean.
It was there, but now it’s gone. All gone.
Over the course of our lives, devastation hits us over and over. We kill ourselves with effort, plan our futures around certain outcomes, and in the blink of an eye our schemes fall to pieces. Large or small, short-term or long, most goals are equally ephemeral. I’ve lost important term papers to the vagaries of 1980s computers. A book manuscript disappeared during a computer backup in the 90s. All my photos from a family reunion vanished when someone clicked the wrong button. Along the way, I have also lost three early pregnancies and a twenty year marriage. I processed those losses a long time ago.
Still, it’s never easy when the universe sees fit to throw me a new snag.
Two weeks ago, I experienced a serious setback involving a project I’m writing, which floored me for a couple of days. I’m glad I had my previous letter (Put a Cork in It) already written, because at the time I had little interest in writing humor.
The thing about setbacks is, we build our expectations around things unfolding in a particular way and on a particular schedule, and suddenly they don’t happen that way at all. It rips the rug out from beneath us. It takes us time to regroup. Recovery means resetting the schedule in our brain. Our [fill in the blank] is not going to get done in the time we allotted, and anything that flows from it must be pushed ahead by some factor. Clinging to that schedule, mourning the disruption of our grand plans, keeps us paralyzed with self-pity. It solves nothing. I always allow myself a decent period of mourning, but then it’s time to climb back on the horse.
Another thing about setbacks: they by no means signify failure. I consider them the equivalent of choosing a wrong turn in a maze. I’ve smashed my nose against more than my share of dead ends, but I try not to spend too much time sitting and sulking. Instead, I run back to the last intersection and choose another path. All mazes have destinations, it’s just a question of how many dead ends we encounter. Some setbacks mean we’ve only shot past a critical turn. Others send us back to the start of the maze. We must learn from wrong turns, so that next time we see them we’ll speed right on by.
My latest project has not failed, I merely took the wrong path. I’ve finished my sulking, processed the loss, and now I’m back on the horse. The delay may end up costing me six months or more, but such is life. Nothing works out in neat, bow-tied packages. Besides, it’s better to do things right than to do them badly … or not do them at all.
I’m starting over, but not completely from scratch. If I peer closely at my chalkboard, I can still make out a few shadowy equations. In time, I’ll reconstruct my master formula; the extra work doesn’t matter. I’m determined to make something great of my scratchings.
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