So I just left a coffee shop and failed to look down to see a speed bump in the parking lot. I caught my prosthetic toes and went tumbling.
My left hand, hip, and forearm smacked the pavement hard, and the pain registered a half-second after the impact. Ouch.
A second later, humiliation stained my cheeks as I lay sprawled, my laptop bag thrown several feet from me and my body twisted with my unbent prosthetic leg at an awkward angle. I looked around quickly, but for once my epic fail went unwitnessed.
Urban Dictionary—an indispensable aid for faculty whose students spout innovative terminology at dizzying rates—defines epic fail as a “complete and total failure when success should have been reasonably easy to attain.” That about sums up walking across a parking lot, which should be a no-brainer for me after all these years as an amputee.
I know better than to walk without looking down, but I did it anyway because I was distracted while digging in my bag for my car keys, a multi-tasking luxury that leg amputees must forgo – or pay the consequences. I can walk or look at something (other than the ground), but not both.
As I awkwardly regained my footing and retrieved my bag, a rapid series of emotions moved through my body. Resentment compressed my lips into a thin line. Gratitude that I was not seriously hurt released my shoulders from their clench. Grief for my pre-cancer body-self rolled through my stomach. Shame at my failure to accomplish a basic life task kept my cheeks hot and tingly.
The Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s famous quote (taken out of context from his brooding contemplation of “the void”) came to me: Fail. Fail again. Fail better.
I’m not sure I’m failing any better now than when I first became an amputee. In fact, this lapse of good judgment is arguably a worse fail, since I knew full well that I was doing something dangerous, yet I did it anyway.
As I made my way to my car, I tried to think of a positive outcome, a lesson I had learned from this particular failure. How could I think of this as a better fail than the last one? I couldn’t.
Driving home, left side aching, it finally occurred to me that the best thing I could do would be to be kind to myself, to offer myself compassion rather than condemnation. That’s not easy for me; beating myself up for imperfections is a long-time habit. Offering myself the same compassion I would offer to a friend if she fell for any reason could be a transformative experience. If I think of failing better in terms of more effectively coping with the inevitability of failure (as opposed to moving closer to achieving success following a failure), I can reframe this as a better fail.
I managed to stop berating myself and instead talked gently to myself as I catalogued my aches and pains and affirmed the importance of not making this same mistake again. I spoke kindly, reassuring myself that it wasn’t a big deal, that there is no need to feel ashamed by my fall.
I think it’s time for an update and repurposing of Beckett’s famous quote:
Fail. Fail again. Fail compassionately. Fail shamelessly. Fail kindly. Fail with self-love.