Into the Sunset

I’ll admit that there have been moments I’ve considered ending my relationship with Charming. When we’re together, I’m nearly oblivious to any pain that came before; gentlemen do exist in 2015, and I love that. I might love him, if I could ever think beyond the “might” that bubbles up when we’re apart, assuring me the pain that came before was real. Scary. Foreboding.

Six months ago, I was writing through the fallout of a surprising betrayal. It’s like a warplane crossing over foreign borders, putting the country below on the offensive. They’ve been threatened and stunned, and the best strategy for preservation seems to be to strike first. Even if they eliminated the aircraft’s present threat, there is a lasting impact. They’ll be expecting future threats.

The personal component of betrayal cannot be neglected in this analogy. We must take it personally. Deceit is personal. To accept that someone you love and respect has annihilated the trust and intimacy you esteemed is to admit to failure. I recall sorting through the fallout of my ex-boyfriend’s confession in much the same way I help Mom clean out the attic. Three piles: put away, give away, throw away. I did that with my beliefs about him, my hopes for us, and our memories.

And as I sorted through the relationship rubbish, I cried hard. The mascara running, stomach aching, heart racing, deep sobbing, so-stuffed-up-you-can’t-breath kind of crying. That pain was real. Scary. Foreboding. What had I done wrong?   The act of questioning myself overshadowed his misdeeds. Was I not good enough? Not kind, giving, adoring, or sweet enough?

Masochistic thinking, if not curtailed, promises certain failure. My tenth graders debated this week over agreement or disagreement with the following saying: “Failure is not the worst thing in the world. The very worst is not to try.” The kids discussed a range of reasons for both sides of the argument, but the reasons were most convincing in its defense. As one young man noted, Thomas Edison failed a thousand times before inventing the light bulb. Would we be sitting in the dark if he’d stopped trying?

This half of the class believed that if we never tried, we guaranteed failure. How do you define failure? Edison viewed his thousand previous attempts as steps in the invention process. One of my teens describes it as ensuring you’ll never succeed. But as my persuasive gurus know, every solid argument addresses its counterclaim — that the other side has a point, but they’re wrong.

Failure can be debilitating. Failure applies the rhetorical trifecta to our psyche. We have evidence that we were wrong. We doubt our credibility. We feel regret. That reality is staggering, and we aim to avoid repeating, it if only for our survival.

When I pulled a hamstring and lost the state qualifier meet for the 100 meter dash to Camille Guyot-Bender junior year of high school, I experienced failure. It debilitated only for a day or two, as I could quickly justify the failure by the injury and not a lack of preparation. I went on to compete in college, until another injury halted my sprinting adventures. I made friends along the way, and I learned a daily practice of discipline. It’s easier to overcome failures and keep trying when you’re free of guilt.

I don’t like running. When I made my list of Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties, I included completing a half-marathon. I listed things I’d always wanted to do, never thought I could do, or was too afraid to do. This one falls into the second and third categories. It won’t be a hamstring a few yards before the finish line – it could be cramping, fainting, or laying down seven miles in too drained to take another step.

I ran before, but I ran differently. My race was over in under 13 seconds if I honored my craft. It was about explosive, powerful strides, not endurance or conditioning or pace. My friend offered to train with me for a half-marathon in March. In the fallout of her own personal crisis, she died her hair red, and it fits, because she reminds me of Ariel, getting ready to touch new toes with new land. She has her own reasons for achieving this goal, not the least of which is the outlet the preparation provides.

So Ariel convinced me to go for a run with her today. It was cold, and I’m a wimp, but she’s a persuasive guru. Sunset found us jogging along a shaded trail, puffs of breath traded with winded girl talk. As we rounded a bend, the woods opened into a plain to the west. The beauty of that sunset gripped me in an uncharacteristic assault of gratitude. I was so thankful to be in that spot with Ariel, so much so that I nagged her into a prohibited stop on our run to capture the moment.

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I considered another discussion my yearbook students had this week. They shared their freewrites responding to the cue: thankful. It seemed timely to reflect on this. Teens opened up about family members, friends, and hobbies. I wrote about them in my freewrite. They inspire me daily. There was a time during and after my divorce where I had given up on teaching. If I hadn’t tried again, I wouldn’t be in this classroom on a peninsula in Virginia entrusted with the positive, forward growth of over a hundred budding promises.

And if I hadn’t committed to this marathon when I registered last week, I wouldn’t be on this trail with Ariel experiencing this sunset. This is one of those opportunities I would have missed if I hadn’t tried. You guarantee failure when you don’t try, but you comfort yourself because you never knew you missed that sunset. And missing out on these Virginia adolescents would certainly have been a failure.

That’s the counterclaim. The other side has a point, but they’re wrong. Failure is a bad thing, but it creates learning experiences that lay the foundation for positive, forward growth. By comparison, not trying is worse than failing. There are no lessons gleaned, no successes tasted, no lights turned on, no sunsets soaked in.

In one of my father’s recollections of my mother, he describes marrying her and riding off into the sunset together. On that trail today, the full effect of that metaphor gripped me. After I snapped my picture, we raced into the sunset. In the nipping cold of the evening, the rays of the sun warmed my skin. I would enjoy it as long as it lasted.

We ride (or race) off into the sunset… knowing it will end. All sunsets do. That’s the logical appeal. We’ve seen every sunset end. That’s the credible appeal. We love the beauty of the sunset. That’s the emotional appeal. Three piles: put away, give away, throw away. Where do our failures go?

All relationships end. Some sooner than others. The pain is real. Scary. Foreboding. But if we never try, we guarantee failure by assuring we’ll never find success. All sunsets end. But if we never run off into them, we’ll miss something amazing, like on that trail today. We soak them up intentionally, knowing eventually they’ll be gone, but being grateful to know their warmth.

The other side has a point. I never want to experience relationship failure again. However, by avoiding commitment, I’m ensuring I will never have a family of my own.   Does the potential for another shocking confession or another pulled hamstring keep me from racing off into the sunset?

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