I’m cycling back from downtown Montreal after midnight on a Friday. I feel exhausted after having worked seven hours that day, volunteering for the city’s biggest comedy festival, Just for Laughs (JFL). ‘I hate volunteering’, I think. It’s not that I’ve had a particularly bad day, I’ve made friends with a nice Lebanese guy and a lovely Haitian girl who spoke to me in French. And the work wasn’t that hard, with people willingly accepting the fliers that I thrust into their hands and opening their bags obligingly so that I could search them for security reasons.
Most of the volunteering work I’ve done in the past has been boring and I’ve in some way felt like I got the short end of the stick but I decided to volunteer for this festival because I don’t have enough money to buy tickets to shows and I’m determined to still enjoy the major summer events taking place in the city. Volunteering for JFL means that, in return, I get to see shows for free, which seems like a fair deal to me.
‘You’re a loser’, my mind says to me as I’m checking bags and then lists why: unemployed, broke, single, having to work for free to be able to enjoy a bit of entertainment. ‘No one else you know is doing this’, it helpfully reminds me. ‘In fact, some of them are performing in the festival.’ ‘Oh yeah,’ I think and hope no one I know will spot me in my oversized peppermint-green JFL t-shirt, which I have to wear for volunteering and which is off-set by my pink, sunburnt face.
By the time I cycle home I’m worn out by my mind’s repetitive tormenting. It’s dark and I can hear the crickets singing loudly as if they don’t care who hears them. They call me back to the outside world and I feel the soothing breeze brush against my burnt skin. My heart squeezes with joy: I love this part of my cycle route.
The road I live on is long and dark. As it stretches ahead of me the end of it looks unusually clear, like a vortex. The corners of my eyes blur so that I have to look around to check everything is still there. Most of the houses have their blinds shut – they look calmly asleep – but a few windows are still lit up and I can see a couple of people sat alone in their living rooms staring into laptop screens. It’s crisply quiet so I slow down – there’s no need to rush home, I’m enjoying noticing my surroundings. It feels like the slow-motion part in a movie, where everything takes on acute detail and meaning.
‘You’re a failure’, my mind suddenly chimes in, breaking this peaceful moment. ‘Okay,’ I reason with it, ‘yeah, you’re right. I am a failure. Now what next?’ I’ve arrived home by this point but I don’t want to go in yet so I sit down on my front door steps and mull over my confession. As I do, I feel a warmth rise up from my belly to my chest. ‘Yeah, I’m a failure. Now what next?’ I repeat over and over again noticing how this releases a strange tingling sensation within me. I feel more present than I have all day. It’s a pleasant, grounded feeling and I smile at the slight irony of it. Accepting what, to my original discomfort, my mind has been telling me all day has actually made me feel at ease with myself.
The word ‘failure’ is pretty loaded and I think that most of us are scared of being labeled with it. Having come through the ‘accepted’ period of my exploring/experimenting early twenties, I now feel a societal pressure to settle down to what should look like a blooming career, relationship and comfortable position on the housing market. I currently have none of these.
Most of this is down to personal choice and some, perhaps, to lack of self belief. I grew up in a community of rebels: people who rejected what they perceived to be the ‘social norm’ in pursuit of love, friendship and, ultimately, their own version of happiness, so I’m pretty used to being on the fringes of things. But I still get my daily dose of internal finger-pointing ‘failure’ bashing and self-loathing rhetoric, which starts from the moment I open my eyes in the morning (and why I wrote ‘Morning Dread’).
I like embracing the word ‘failure’ because it feels unexpected at a time when we’re encouraged to brag about and exaggerate our successes to our peers. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you’re achieving – it’s healthy to know and share your strengths – but I think there’s also a risk of creating a ‘failure’-free space where it doesn’t feel safe to share any of your shortcomings, disappointments and lost dreams too. I wonder what a conversation like that would be like?
‘What do you do?’ is a question I often get asked here as I’m constantly meeting new people. It’s exhausting! I generally try to conjure up something which sounds like a creative career (writing, singing, performing) because I’m still exploring but more often my response comes out in a bit of a jumble instead. I try to avoid noticing the somewhat pitying, confused expression on the face of the person asking me.
I read an article a while ago which said that people care more about ‘what you do’ than ‘who you are’ and if you’re a good person, which I find to be painfully true. But I think words like ‘failure’ and expectations about careers and relationships and even questions like ‘what do you do?’ can be so fixed and defining that I’m concerned that the repercussions of this is that we make a lot of choices out of fear of falling short and don’t take risks. You may have ‘failed’ to achieve something right now but life is constantly moving forward, so you’ll probably get good at something later or you’ll find something else you want to be doing or someone else you prefer to be with instead.
I know that my true friends and family love me for who I am and not what I do and embracing this societal assumption that I’m a ‘failure’ is a positive way for me to internalize that love and acceptance for myself. ‘Yeah, I’m a failure. Now what next?’ allows me to be present with where I’m at and, ironically, takes away any shame I feel about what I’ve not achieved yet. It makes it possible to keep going, which for me is more important than anything. I can then feel excited about what I am doing and what I want to contribute to the world.
I always thought I’d have to go to India or somewhere in Africa to ‘find myself’ but it seems that living in Montreal has provided me with plenty of deep and meaningful self-exploratory and ‘a-ha’ moments. I’m also pretty sure I’m going to come back to London with a tattoo of a tree etched somewhere on my body to prove it.