“Failure is an experience in which the universe feels compelled to grab someone by their hair and whip them in an altogether different direction because they simply aren’t listening!” Elizabeth Lyons
“Peace comes within. Do not seek it without.” Buddha
Unattained goals…….Unrealized dreams…….Second places……Failures.
We may try to avoid them and society may snub its nose at them, but a typical “civilized” human life is littered with their debris. How we deal with them may be one of the keys to attaining and holding onto happiness. Perhaps, however, the mere presence of a healthy number of failures to look back upon is, at the end, a more important measure of a life well lived.
There was a time in my life that setting and achieving goals and reaching targeted destinations were fundamental aspects of my being. Falling short wasn’t an option. It’s un-American, right? In America, only the winners deserve our adoration and respect. Second place is fodder for derision and meaningless trivia, whether it’s the Superbowl or the local beer bowling league. At least until the next championship game, and then the winners also can be forgotten.
There’s a Buddhist principle that exhorts one to take pleasure in the journey, as opposed to glorifying the destination. I know, I know, its blasphemy to even whisper about being satisfied with not reaching goals and being something other than number one, but hey, work with me and swim against the tide, okay?
I find deep satisfaction in looking back on turning points in the winding path of my life that allowed me to recognize the value of trying, and to realize there usually was more benefit gleaned from my experiences on the way to a place, compared to what I collected when I got to a place. Often, in fact, not reaching a targeted place, whether that place was a physical location or a symbolic one perched above vanquished competitors, led to finding even better places. Even better, once the “destination” is removed as the ultimate measure of success, success seems to be much easier to achieve.
Not long ago, I did a solo hike of the Sendero de los Quetzales (Trail of the Quetzals) in western Panama, one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the country situated at the pivot point of the Americas. Depending on where you start it’s a roughly 5 to 10-mile (8 to 16-km) trail that runs from the villages of Boquete and Cerro Punto.
The Sendero de los Quetzales trail winds through wonderfully majestic old growth cloud forest, possibly my favorite ecosystem of all those I’ve visited or studied. Cloud forest is a tropical or subtropical habitat that’s found in mountainous areas. It’s an evergreen, moist forest that’s characterized by a persistent, frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover that usually hovers up at the canopy level of the trees, but often creeps along quite contentedly at ground level, coming and going on a carefree schedule. This moisture and continual growing season leads to greenery on steroids; small to extremely large trees draped in a well layered cloaks of moss, bromeliads, vines, and orchids.
The trail is reknowned because it passes through some of the best habitat in Panama for a bird named the Resplendent Quetzal, considered among the most beautiful birds in the world. This species of quetzal occurs throughout the highlands of southern Central America, but never really attains a status of “common.” It’s recognized as the national bird of Guatemala, and throughout Central America its way more commonly found on refrigerator magnets, stained glass, coffee mugs, and t-shirts. The species is a gaudily adorned and roughly crow-sized bird with brilliant blue, green and red feathers, and the male is equipped during the breeding season with a train of two tail feathers that extend up to 3 feet (1 meter) behind the bird.
For birders, seeing the quetzal is a prize. In other words, it’s quite the “destination.” The Resplendent Quetzal was my destination on my hike of the Sendero de los Quetzales.
I began my quest for the quetzal at the crack of dawn amidst uncertainty and unease. There was a rumor that the trail was closed, although no one I spoke to knew why. Others believed it had been closed months before, but now was open. A friend dropped me off at the trailhead outside of Cerro Punta. As they pulled away, I organized my gear and took my first steps down the trail but was almost immediately halted by a handwritten note nailed to a tree that said “Trail Closed.” The sign looked old though, and my friend was gone with no way of reaching her. Going back wasn’t really an option I’d consider, given that it had taken me two days to bus here from Boquete. Walking the 8-hour Quetzal trail to Boquete was the most direct route. The trail probably was closed for routine maintenance, and really, what were a few fallen trees across the trail, or a few washouts other than exercises in woodsmanship and orienteering anyway? Besides, maybe the trail was open now, and no one had bothered to remove the old sign.
Thereby dismissing the note as a minor pothole on the way to paradise, I continued down the trail.
I had only walked a short distance when I heard my first quetzal, far off. I smiled and knew for certain my goal of seeing quetzals was a sure thing! First, though, I had to endure a lesson about the importance of paying attention to signs. About 20 minutes into the hike, I rounded a corner along a steep portion of trail that was on well-constructed wooden steps, complete with railings, when I was stopped dead in my tracks. The wooden steps disappeared into….nothing!
I found myself staring at an empty space where a forested hillside used to be.
It was my first close up encounter with a world class landslide. I studied the gap and tried to look across the quarter mile or so to the other side to see if I could tell where the trail picked up. Failing, I inched my way down to the bare soil and rock and looked for any sign of footprints that might lead the way. No luck there either, and the ground was unstable under my hiking shoes. I looked far down the slope to the jumble of uprooted trees, boulders, and mud at the bottom, and an image of me sliding down into the tangle with no one having a clue where I was jarred a bit of sense into me, so I reluctantly turned around and began to do the logistical planning for what combination of hitch hiking, walking, and bussing I would need to get back to the Village of Boquete.
Back at the trailhead, I met a group of three French hikers, with a Panamanian guide. Through a comical collective jumble of English, Spanish, and French, I learned that the trail was still officially closed, but that a few guides knew of a way across that wound above the landslide. I joined their group, and about 45 minutes later, I viewed the landslide from the other side.
We stopped for a break and they invited me to continue to hike with them, but I was on a solo mission that day, and I had appointments with countless quetzals. I thanked them and forged ahead.
The enshrouding cloud forest quickly welcomed me back under its cloak and I was back on task.
I drew from years of experience studying and censusing birds to locate my quarry. I walked slowly and methodically. I quieted my eyes. I paused for long stretches of time in the best habitat and allowed time for the targeted species to come to me. I studied large panoramas and investigated each insignificant flash of movement with well-focused binoculars. I noticed and dwelt upon the perfect arm-sized tree limbs with just the right sized openings for Quetzal perches among the crowded bromeliads and orchids that adorned the forest trees like overdone green jewelry bling.
I concentrated and contorted and worked my gestalt into the mind of the quetzal.
I became the quetzal.
Or so I cockily believed. That day, I heard, sensed, and felt quetzals…. I would swear I even smelled them. They were behind tree trunks the size of small cars, on the other side of thickets, and they took flight moments before I would scan their perches. They were everywhere.
But I never saw one.
Up until the period of my life that this trip occurred in, I seemed to have the Midas touch. My brother would often complain I was born with a silver spoon firmly lodged in a certain part of my anatomy. I would set goals, and just achieve them. Failure never was something I really had to contend with.
But now I was in the midst of a stretch of learning that was teaching me about life. It was one of those life calibrations that was preparing me to appreciate future happiness by dishing out some serious sadness first – the kind that leads us to question what it’s all about and why we are bothering.
I’ve heard several variations on the theme that you don’t really appreciate and understand the highs in life, until you’ve slogged around in the trenches of lows for a good amount of time, including a dose or two of rock bottom. I’m talking serious “Frodo in the bowels of Mordor” situations, here. I suppose we all need reminding every once in a while of how good life can be, so it’s critical that life toss some mud our way with some degree of regularity so we don’t take things for granted or become numb to the beauty. After all, we don’t want to get complacent or lose sight of what’s really important, or put ourselves in the position to miss recognizing a high when it comes along.
Of course, it’s always difficult to understand lessons and see the bright side of life when we are in the worst of it. For me I now understand that it’s a process of recognizing it, experiencing it, feeling it, believing I am through only to realize I am not (actually this step may repeat itself several times), processing, and finally emerging like a groundhog waking from hibernation in the spring, tentatively poking my head through my still snow covered burrow, and still quite willing to duck inside for a bit more slumber, or insight.
The well-traveled cliché is that “every cloud has its silver linings.” The second part of this should be, “but only if we’re willing and able to look for them.” A willingness to fail is probably a prerequisite to having the ability to look for those silver linings. I’ve come to appreciate that failing to appreciate that the failure to reach a destination doesn’t mean failure is, well….pretty much failure.
The failures, the dark depths, the unattained goals….I now understand and appreciate each one of them, and draw upon them for daily awareness to notice and appreciate things, perspective to not sweat the small stuff, and generally find happiness.
I suppose that the ultimate lesson in shifting our mindset away from destination and toward the journey in life comes at death. It’s possible to arrive at death after having sprinted through a life of setting and achieving one goal after another, making and being on time for appointments, packing our schedules with nonstop commitments, forgetting to hug our kids, worrying how we are doing and how we are regarded, and not slowing down until it kills us or society is ready to discard us. It’s a cliché for a person who lived life this way to sit on their death bed alone, with regrets about misplaced priorities, neglected values, and a gradual dawning of what was really important.
I don’t intend on being one of those people. There’s too much to be gained during the journey, but in order to achieve it, we need to lift our eyes above our feet on our trails, look around, stop often, and generally be open to being aware.
There are so many ways to value an experience beyond the ultimate gratification achieved at the destination. What begins as a compromise can end up as the best decision possible.
Imagine if you can….
Climbing a mountain and turning around before reaching the top, but experiencing great views, exercise, and nature sightings along the way.
Taking classes at college and not needing the degree to realize or appreciate your growth and enrichment or validate your accomplishment.
Hopping in a car to drive for a vacation in Florida, but stopping in Georgia, discovering great beaches, and having a great time.
Seeking a job as a mover and a shaker, but accepting one as a nudger, being proud and doing a helluva job at it.
Then afterwards, imagine NOT needing to give an excuse as you relate the story to friends and family!
Experiencing failure on occasion is an inevitable result of putting yourself out there. If you don’t try, you can’t succeed, but maybe more importantly, if you don’t try, you can’t fail. In failure comes growth and enrichment along the way.
By the end of my long hike on the Senderos de los Quetzales, I was elated that I hadn’t seen any quetzals!
By searching so thoroughly and having had my senses so alert and at such a high level of awareness, I’d been given an even better and rarer gift: I glimpsed the soul of the cloud forest. I could feel it breathing as the moist air wafted at a lazy pace through the gloriously diverse and complex foliage of the trees, bromeliads, orchids, and moss. I sensed variations in humidity along the trail as if it were alternately the dry air of my own inhaled breathe and the moist air of my exhale. I heard a huge variety of bird vocalizations ranging from exhuberant proclamations of territorial ownership, to barely audible feeding peeps and recognition call notes. In a lively game of “Push-me Pull-you” the crisp smells of living plants energized my limbs even as the pungent dull smells of dead and rotting plants encouraged torpor. I saw a hundred shades of green blending through the mossy forest dancing on rays of sunshine that sometimes sliced through to the forest floor in full force, sometimes were filtered and muted, and sometimes locked out by perpetual dusk.
On the Senderos de los Quetzals, I’d traveled along a highway with intersections of roads consecutively named “High Expectations Street,” “Overconfidence Circle,” “Edgy Concern Parkway,” “You’ve got to be Kidding Boulevard,” “Rationalization Lane,” “Awakening Alley,” and finally “Awareness Avenue.”
Setting and achieving goals, and arriving at destinations obviously are part of life.
Sometimes, though, not seeing the Resplendent Quetzal can be even better.
P.S. No Resplendent Quetzals were photographed, filmed, or otherwise harassed in the development of this blog post.