As I walked under the Braun Music Center arch, passing the green lawns of the Row, I pictured myself riding a bike, taking the same path. In my head, I have just finished work, though it is still as light as midday. The setting has been set before me, and the vision feels close to real.
But a week later, the call came. Then, I was walking that same path, too.
“It’s just not a good fit — good luck with everything,” he said.
My vision — a congratulatory email from X company in my inbox, astonishment from my peers and my frantic search for internships over with — drained from my eyes. After the recruiter hung up the phone, my temples pulsed as my thumb dashed the screen for MOM. As I walked, I realized where I had just been catapulted, and that was back to square one.
With no foot in the door anywhere at all, it seemed, I felt my eyes begin to warm with tears.
According to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in “Being and Time,” we are always becoming. With possibilities for our being that always lie ahead of us, we grasp (that is, actualize) or fail to grasp possibilities in time. The one possibility, though, that constantly lurks over us and that ends all other possibilities is death.
Reading this, I thought that Heidegger was the last philosopher I wanted to read after being confronted with personal failure. His words, each loaded with meaning like a toddler with ankle weights, lacked the poetry I needed in my life. Heidegger’s idea that existence is a task or burden, not a given, as Prof. Thomas Sheehan had told us in class, felt discouraging as well.
But the reading for my “Heidegger and Mysticism” class — no matter how I felt — was still due tomorrow.
Reviewing my notes, I forged on.
The beauty of philosophy is that it often articulates that which we take for granted. To an extent, Heidegger’s philosophy helped me do the same.
“When everything is going well, we often do not remember our context,” I scrawled in my notebook from one of Sheehan’s lectures. A few pages later, “Our purposes give meaning to the present.”
According to Heidegger, we are always simultaneously present and ahead of ourselves: be they goals, future tasks or aims, the possibilities that we see ahead render meaning for us in the present. In my case, I had projected myself as an intern at X company in the future, even imagining what I would see and experience in vague images: running through Campus Drive in the early morning, working at the office, and biking home. The confidence that I had in this vision, with each qualifying round that I had passed toward getting an offer, bolstered my self-assuredness in the present and laid a clear progression of steps from now to then. “I could apply to Summer RA for housing,” I thought. “It could give me time to work on my writing,” I thought, too. “The experience would look good on my resume,” I thought as well. And there I was already, imagining myself retrospectively talking about a future that hadn’t even happened, let alone was guaranteed. Before picking up the phone, hearing a happy “We would love to have you join the team!” flashed in my mind when I saw the recruiter’s out-of-state area code.
But soon after, actuality scrapped that plan, making the utter emptiness of my surroundings plainly visible. Bereft of a planned future, now trees were just what they were again — trees. The Braun Music Center was just what it was, too. These landmarks that I had once built into a future and narrative, now lacked their once clear and optimistic luster.
I thought I lost something significant to look forward to.
Failures raise a kind of consciousness that we may have not had before. They jolt the monotony, reminding us, as Joan Didion put it, that lights won’t always turn green for us.
In her essay “On Self-Respect,” Didion puts failure in the context of self-respect and self-awareness — that failure drives us back into ourselves and sleep in the bed we’ve made. “…it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect,” she wrote. “[Self-respect] has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.”
At first unwelcome, failure reminds us that life is a game of improvisation — one informed by the purposes toward which we aim. But, of course, no vision for the future is airtight, and on top of that, even when we get to “where we wanted to be,” infinite possibilities still lie ahead, begging to be realized. In a word, life refuses to sit still.
The unexpected, too, does more than undermine our current projections or remind us, yes, that we are infallible. From it, whole new worlds inevitably light up. Even hopelessness, as Heidegger writes, is an orientation toward possibility, for possibilities drive “living” itself.
At Stanford it is easy to slide into the humdrum of the everyday: to check off tasks by the number as small measures of success, to watch assignments and projects, days and entire quarters go by. But as we’re carried by some seemingly interminable present, a goal that we once envisioned as leading to other possibilities will sometimes disqualify itself, leaving us feeling discouraged or thinking we are aimless. A sense of self, though, can remind us that we can try again or move on.
I often have to remind myself that I am always a work in progress, able to sate my desires that lie ahead or sometimes unable to touch them. Still, a sense of self demands that we live with uncertainty. Existence moves us on by necessity.
In times of failure, the best we can do is to allow other worlds to illuminate.
Contact Eliane Mitchell at elianem ‘at’ stanford.edu.