I’ve been struggling with failure lately. Here’s a femail between me and another femail author who gives spot-on advice when I am raw with disappointment and heartbreak. Excuse the language; it gets real.
From: Johanna Gusman
To: Dena Javadi
Re: Mont Blanc
Date: 23 August 2017 at 11:42PM
It’s official. I won’t be able to summit Mont Blanc. The altitude sickness will preclude me from the climb. I’m super bummed for many reasons, most of which are obvious. I mean just look at the god damned thing; it’s fucking incredible. But mainly I feel as though this outcome is like many of my current life trials: a botched attempt to do something great and falling short. Way short (about 1800m to be exact).
I know it’s stupid to attribute a failed attempt at Mont Blanc as an epic life failure–it takes even the most experienced of climbers (which I admittingly am not even close to becoming) an average of two tries to conquer that mountain–but it’s hard not to see the symmetry. I mean, there’s a reason that metaphores often use climbing mountains as synonymous to surmounting challenges; it’s one in the same.
So not even being able to attempt the summit feels especially shitty considering that I am also not even close to figuring out my own next steps in life. Perhaps I wanted too much from myself in all of this, as is often my case, but I was truly hoping that the clarity of the fresh mountain air would bring clarity in my own life. Like if I could surmount Mont Blanc, than I could do anything. Like choose the right path for my future, as though the answer would hit me as I walked along that final ridge to the literal highest point in Europe.
Instead, I have to stare at the face of Mont Blanc from the window of my chalet after making the horrible, humiliating (and actually quite excruciatingly painful) descent down from Tete Rouse (the sub-base camp about 700m down from the famous Gouter Hut that I could see but not reach). It feels fucking awful. Like 1000x worse than any break up with any boyfriend. I had more invested in this, physically, mentally, and emotionally (not to mention financially) than I ever have in any relationship with a significant other. I am so fucking heartbroken.
Logically, I understand that there is nothing that I can do about the current situation. However, on a visceral level, I am disappointed and pissed at myself. I won’t play the ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ game, but I will play the ‘what the hell were you thinking?’ card. Of course I was not in the best physical shape, the right mental state and with the proper emotional wherewithall to actually summit this crazy mountain. Mont Blanc does require certain amount of humility from any climber. Really, a shit ton of it. Yesterday, a man died on the Gouter route from a rock fall. It’s not a fucking joke.
And that is probably the lesson in all of this: learning to actually be fucking humble. Not just acting like it (as goldstar overachievers are often want to do when it’s what is expected). And not just in terms of climbing, but in life. My staff contract at WHO was not renewed. People lose contracts all the time. I am not special or different to think that this could not happen to me, especially in the UN world. I have to move on and be okay if it is not some massively impressive thing to tell people that I have moved onto. In other words, actually being fucking humble because being the kind of change I want to see in this freaking world requires that. Plain and simple.
The people that are actually making the small, positive changes needed in this world often go unnoticed, and when noticed, it’s without much fanfare. Because that is the nature of making a difference; it’s gradual and quiet. And people more often than not take it for granted. So the attention or praise or need to feel as though I am making a positive mark on this earth is probably precisely what is keeping me from doing just that. Do, don’t just say you’ll do as a way to feel accomplished. Just like telling people I am going to summit MB doesn’t mean that I can actually fucking summit it.
This ended in a trite little package, which was not my intention. I am just freewriting as I grapple with this heaviness of losing out on another ‘goldstar’ that I am constantly going after. ‘Mont Blanc Summiter’ will not happen for me, at least not yet. And I guess that I just have to accept that (and perhaps also be a little more self-forgiving along the way).
All the feels,
From: Dena Javadi
To: Johanna Gusman
Date: 24 August 2017 at 8:23AM
Do you think that the clarity you were looking for came, not from summitting MB but from being humbled by not doing so? I think one of the best cures for Chronic Goldstar Syndrome is having yourself distanced enough from the illusory dazzle of the star, that it stops burning your retinas and becomes the lump of rock it really is, giving space to other thoughts and modus operandi.
Identity=overachiever can actually be quite limiting in seeing the bigger picture because we’re too distracted by our own shine and the relative shimmers of other fellow sufferers shoving their stars in each other’s faces. There are two things in your text that make me feel like the lack of summit will ultimately be what helps you climb this next stage of your life:
1) Your sixth paragraph. The reason that all the metaphors are about climbing mountains isn’t because everyone manages to summit. It’s because the physical and environmental constraints of mountaineering are so great that to assume to conquer is one of the dumbest things we can do – every step forward is a result of both planning and luck and needs gratitude. It’s why I actually like hiking. It’s so literal in the need for humility in the face of life’s curveballs.
2) It doesn’t read like an instagram caption. it’s real and having to restructure your thinking around what goals and achievements are (there’s a reason there are two different words for those things…) will help so much in shaping your next steps in a way that will be validating for you and not necessarily conspicuously validating to an external audience.
I think you’re amazing for taking on this venture to begin with, training despite limitations that most people would just succumb to, pouring your heart into it enough to feel the heartbreak, and coming out with such important realizations not even a day after. Don’t undermine your strength and resilience, listen to that guide. He’s right. And know that the same applies to the other areas of your life. You’ve already left so many important marks on the world whether you realize it or not and you’ll continue to do so. By shoving aside the goldstar distraction, you’ll find that the air won’t be as thin and you’ll have the freedom to actually breathe and be that change.
*Image: View of Mont Blanc from the chalet as I finished George Orwell’s Why I Write.