Failure and success: two sides of the same coin

There are two great dangers for human beings, especially when they go from childhood to adulthood: the inability to deal with one’s failures and successes and the temptation to define oneself. The two of them are connected. It is easy to think you are on top of the world when you accomplish something, but it is as easy, if not even easier, to consider that you are worthless if you fail doing what you planned. In fact, we define ourselves especially during these moments, when we either love or hate where we are in life.

Perhaps one of the problems of our world today is that, in our despair to define ourselves, to find our places in this world from where we can affirm our individuality, we have forgotten to teach children how to deal with their failures and successes. Instead of doing so, we seem to enjoy living in a world that is deprived of freedom, deprived of the freedom of being fine with who I am because I want to either run away from the “I” that I don’t want to be (so the “I” defined by failure) or to run towards the “I” that I want to be (so the “I” defined by success).

Do not accept “the advice of those who say, ‘Human you are, think human thoughts,’ and ‘Mortals you are, think mortal ones,'” Aristotle says. Instead, you should, as far as possible, “assimilate to the immortals and do everything with the aim of living in accordance with what is highest of the things in us; for even if it is small in bulk, the degree to which it surpasses everything in power and dignity is far greater. And each of us would seem actually to be this, given that each is his authoritative and better element; it would be a strange thing, then, if one chose, not one’s own life, but that of something else.”

There’s a lot of freedom in this thought, because it tells me that I can become that which I am potentially by nature: divine. Two options for Aristotle, then: I can be human, and be governed by my successes and failures and so by the judgment I receive from my fellow humans, or I can be divine, and so free, beyond any temptations of self-defining. I don’t need to do anything to become so: I “only” need to know myself.

Parenting, Socrates, and the self

Toward the end of Socrates’ speech during his trial, he addresses his accusers saying,

this much I ask from them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody…”

This is a model of parenting that is very foreign to our day and age. Socrates asks his accusers to treat his children the way he has treated them. He ended up in prison mainly because of the way in which he treated his accusers, making them feel embarrassed in public, often before their own students. Socrates says something even more outrageous to our modern sensibilities: tell your students that they are nobody, especially when they think they are somebody.

Imagine a parent telling his or her children that they are nobody. In today’s world, this is easily interpreted as psychological abuse; we would say that the parent does not allow his or her children to be themselves. In fact, Socrates’ attitude seems to be completely opposed to the desire to manifest one’s own individuality.

There’s a beautiful song in what I thought a beautiful movie, The Greatest Showman, that speaks of manifesting one’s individuality. The following video is quite moving, for it shows someone who feels as if she came out of the oppression you experience when you don’t feel welcome for who you are.

The shout, “THIS IS ME,” and Socrates’ “my children are nobody” seem to be so foreign. But this is so only at a superficial level. Socrates wants his children to be reminded that they are nobody whenever they believe they are somebody. For human beings, this usually happens when we fall in love with what the world has made us to be and we consider this product of our era as our true self. In fact, Socrates’ philosophy is a call for each one of us to find ourselves: our true selves. For this, one needs to be reminded first that whatever he considers himself to be is a nobody created by the world around him: the ideas he has ingurgitated, the fears that formed him, the praises that he received. Socrates only says that we need to remember that all of those things are not us, but are the nobodies that they created. Give them up, and the true self will shine, he seems to say. It is most likely that we would not need to shout to the world that “this is me” when we truly find it.