Tales of our Time: Learning to live with failure
Michael Hayman | 26 January 2022
This piece originally appeared in Country & Town House January/February 2022.
‘The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.’ The observation of the eminent American novelist Ralph Ellison capturing the circularity of life. It’s a favourite quote of Meg Mason, the author of the incredible best-selling novel Sorrow and Bliss (W&N, £14). It has been described as ‘a brutal, hilarious and compassionate triumph’. She offered a clue to me about what inspired her writing when she told me that, ‘My journey was to decide to start again’. An intervention brought about by turning 40 in the middle of a career crisis when she gave up writing.
It was to be the proverbial darkest hour before the dawn, spurring her on to write about the human condition but with a passion born of the belief that ‘this is my last chance and I didn’t hold anything back’.
She describes the book as a post-hope project. One ‘where you think nothing good is ever going to happen and I don’t care’. But her readers certainly do care. The protagonist has been compared to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and optioned for the big screen by Oscar-winning US studio New Regency.
One of the key characters in the book is called Peregrine, an urbane font of all wisdom. In one key scene he says that, ‘Nostalgia is the suffering caused by our unappeased yearning to return.’
Those words stopped me in my tracks and are worth taking a moment to consider. Nostalgia comes from two Greek words, ‘nostos’ for returning home and ‘algos’ for pain. They explain a lot about regret and perhaps why we spend so much time trying to forget our failures.
For Meg, it helped her draw the conclusion that, ‘I have always found letting go of my failures difficult and forgiving myself for them nearly impossible, but I always thought it was a prerequisite to moving on. A year or two ago I decided to stop trying at self-forgiveness and just exist alongside my failures. To work around them but saying, I failed in these ways but, be that as it may, I am going to proceed.’ For Meg, she wants to exist alongside her failures because they are part of her, part of how she learns, the inescapable scar tissue of life.
We conclude our discussion with improbable inspiration from the children’s classic Woody, Hazel and Little Pip with its final words, ‘And so our story ends, just when everything is at its best.’
Perhaps learning to live with your failures is the lesson we all need to learn at the beginning if we want to live our best.