It was 33 years ago but I can still feel the crushing cringe-filled sensation when I realised my mistake. I had reluctantly agreed to take part in an inter school debating contest, my reluctance borne on the fact that the debate would be in Irish. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my native language, I actually studied Early and Modern Irish in college. Thanks to an inspirational Irish teacher in my pre-Inter Certificate (Junior Cert to younger readers) years, I was passionate but not so articulate. The format of the debate was simple, there were three students on each team, and we were given our topic and sent off for 15 minutes to prepare our positions. While my foggy brain refuses to remember the exact title, I do remember what I thought it was: “Presenters of the News Can Sometimes be Biased” (even back then there were concerns about fake news!). I used my 15 minutes wisely and fully, preparing what I believed to be concise and cogent arguments that yes, sometimes news programmes did put a particular emphasis on a particular issue. I felt, as I sat down, after my 3 minute presentation that I had done a credible job, I had made several salient points my opponent would find it very hard to refute. My confidence was short-lived as he stood up and began by clarifying for me, what the topic actually was. You see, I had not listened fully to the person reading out the subject and had mistaken the word “nuachtán” to mean news in general, when of course it actually means newspapers. My humiliation was compounded further by the fact that he then proceeded to spend three minutes dismantling each one of my arguments. Ouch. Such was my befuddlement (I’m actually shivering as I remember this part) that when my teacher told us to “trith laimhe leis on bhfoireann eile” which I now know means “shake hands with the other team”, I thought she meant “Three cheers for the other team” and proceed to call out her instruction very loudly, to the embarrassment of my team members. Oh, the humiliation, the horror. You know, for many years, every time I remembered this experience I would physically cringe with embarrassment and shame. I remember walking in a stupor for hours around the school reliving the horrible moments of realisation, I had failed miserably.
As failures go, this was probably a mid-level one, but for a clumsy teenager who struggled with his drive for perfection, it was devastating. I could barely look my fellow students in the eye- as it happens – their Irish was worse than mine, and the depth of my mess-up was lost to them, but my feelings of failure triggered a landslide of all the mistakes I had ever made – I began to sink into a quagmire of despair and darkness. My greatest fear had been realised, people would now see me as I actually saw myself, a failure, a mess, an idiot. I had spent so many years building up a veneer of intelligence and self-containment, and now it all lay in tatters around me. Life went on, no-one noticed and to my mind no one cared. I visited many dark places in those days, and struggled to cope with the crippling crisis that was playing behind my “I’m fine!” veneer. Two things helped – running every day – and a college student who was serving as a Dorm Master for that year. He was a Christian and very comfortable in his own skin; he showed me that failure is never final – he showed me that there is always a way back.
Over the years, as I have moved through the murky waters of self-awareness towards loving and accepting myself as I am, I have realised that the seeds of my failure were not in my actual mistakes – they were simply genuine errors – my failure came from a deeper place, where I somehow picked up the messages – I must be able to cope, I can find the solutions myself, rejection is only a heartbeat away. I liken it now to a winding spiral staircase. In my determination to protect myself from criticism and failure, I kept going down the staircase , desperately hoping to find the answers around the next corner (of course spiral staircases don’t actually have corners). Instead I was sinking deeper into darkness and despair. I took many years, several counsellors and the grace of God for me to realise the futility of my trying to fix my failure myself. I was not physically or emotionally capable of turning around and climbing upwards. But I could and did stop striving for perfection, I sat for a while on those slippery steps and waited, and finally a warm light filled the darkened staircase, it literally felt as if a hand held me, and gently helped me to stand, to turn around and to slowly – oh so slowly – take the first shaky step upward. Wherever you are on your journey, and especially on your full acceptance of who you are, please, remember – failure is never final!