Good Failure

…in today’s messy world. Contemporary efforts at social change often seem like going into a black hole. It’s easy to get lost once you’re sucked in—consider all the complexities, the danger of good intentions, the comprehensive impact of multinational corporations, the ethical quagmires around every corner (What do I eat? What do I wear? Where do I live? Whom do I befriend?). It’s easy to surrender to the darkness, exhausted by all the self-examination, and economic and political analysis. It’s easy to feel like failure is inevitable. …

Yes, it’s failure, but how good a failure?‘ philosopher Cornel West asks filmmaker Astra Taylor in her documentary Examined Life. It turns out that there is no sure way to ‘do good’ in the twenty-first century. There are no pat or pure answers. There are no true heroes—and those who cast themselves in this light probably haven’t thought hard enough about the complexities of their work or explored the terrain their own souls with enough honesty. There are only occasional triumphs and, more often, good failures. Good failures are what you achieve when you aim to transform an entire broken system and end up healing one broken soul. …

It’s not that we shouldn’t aim to transform the prison-industrial complex, reduce wealth disparity in this country, cure HIV and AIDS, fix public education. It’s that we must hold these large-scale revolutions in our hearts while tackling small, radical acts every day with our hands. We must wake up wondering how we might fail at changing absolutely everything in such a way that we manage to change a little something.

—Courtney E. Martin, “Conclusion: Good Failure,” Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists (2010)

Right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying

—T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” (1941) Four Quartets

I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. … You know, people from our background—like you, like most PIH-ers, like me—we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.

—Paul Farmer quoted in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder (2003)


He has dwelt in the WEst since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted…and together we have fought the long defeat.”

—Galadriel, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)


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