My life feels like one big failure

My marriage: Failure. My kid: Failure. My education: Failure. Need I say more?

By Cary Tennis
Published July 15, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)


I think I'll keep this short and sweet, but I make no promises. The only promise I make is not to edit, to give you a direct pipeline into my head.

My life story, in a nutshell, is that I've managed to screw up the few good things that have happened to me. College, failure. Repeatedly. I'm now close to my bachelor's, finally, at 30, but it's been a hell of a fight to get here.

First marriage, failure; well before 30 but not before producing a child. That child, failure. Paying bills timely, failure. Paying the occasional ticket on time, failure. Keeping my license valid, failure -- as a result of the unpaid tickets. Keeping my checkbook, failure. That last resulted in pleading guilty to having (Oh my God, horror of horrors!) written a bad check. School failure plus driving with a suspended license (never, ever, ever have I had a DUI -- only suspensions as a result of not timely paying tickets) plus having pled guilty to tiny misdemeanors seems to have destroyed any chance of admission to school for the one thing I actually want to do.

I dream, have always dreamed, of practicing law. Not Big Law, for 160K a year, but down-in-the-trenches law for real people with real problems. But apparently my "character and fitness" (I paid the damn fines eventually, and I simply don't write checks anymore because there's no reason to) isn't suitable for admission to law school.

That's not the problem, though. The problem is that I shortly will have a commercially worthless bachelor's degree, in the worst economy since FDR took office, and massive loans. I need two things, to go to grad school and defer student loans (even a crappy grad school I can pay for in cash, so long as I can defer Stafford loans), and I need something else (hopefully that requires the aforementioned grad school) as a career goal that I can be just as passionate about. If the price we pay for education is mortgaging our future, gambling with getting a job and being able to pay our loans, I demand something from life in return. I demand a career that I will fall in love with, most of the mornings I go to work. Not every day. Perfection is unbecoming. But most. Am I asking too much? I can't afford a counselor or life coach, and I'm bitter about being 30 (almost old enough for a midlife crisis!) and being poor and having no health insurance. Am I setting my sights too high? Should I settle for an MBA and pray the economy improves? (Not like a third-tier MBA is of any value for career.) Where from here do I go?

A Loyal Reader Adrift at Sea

Dear Loyal Reader Adrift,

Is paying parking tickets on time the measure of a man? At your funeral, is that what you would want people to say? Here was a man who paid his parking tickets on time? Or would you rather people said, Here was a man who had boundless energy to help the underdog and worked tirelessly against the odds?

Regard yourself with kindness. It is not a luxury and it is not silly and it is not letting you off the hook. It is in keeping with the pursuit of the truth. The truth is complex. In order to use your admirable qualities of energy, compassion, sense of justice, persistence and high ideals, you need a balanced view of your strengths and weaknesses.

Calling these life events failures distorts the truth. What really happened in school, in your marriage, with your child? What is happening now? Do you see your ex? Do you speak with her? What is that like? Do you still love her? Do you see your child? Do you care for your child? In what ways?

Record in detail how these things you call failures occurred. Writing them down will help you see how they happened. A truer picture of your life will emerge. It will contain the things you love and have strived for and the obstacles you have faced. It will reveal your personality.

Perhaps some of the things that have happened are pretty bad. But review these events in your life. Be precise and objective. Find an attentive listener to serve as a witness. Examine your life and your character. Note the pluses and the minuses.

I think you will find that you are a decent person doing the best you can. You might even try saying this out loud a few times. Try saying, "I am a decent person and I'm doing the best I can." It might feel good to say that. It might feel a little silly, too, but it can't hurt to try it. You might try saying it to yourself in the mirror, even.

What I relate to in your letter is an impatient energy. I recognize a restless spirit who feels strongly about social justice and stymied by routine bureaucracy.

You are close to getting your bachelor's degree, and you are close to the age of 30. What is all this business about failure?

Is a marriage that ends in divorce a failure? Someone fell in love with you. Someone saw in you traits that she admired, and she loved you enough to want to marry you and have a child with you. Is that failure? You had a child together. Is that failure? It has taken you a long time to get your bachelor's degree. Is that failure? Does it not also indicate persistence and determination?

Look into cognitive psychology and neurolinguistics. These disciplines have shown how the words we use to frame reality can affect our outlook on life.

Accept yourself. You're a guy trying to succeed and find happiness in a baffling and hostile world full of injustice.

So maybe you haven't always paid your parking tickets on time. Is that what matters in life?

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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