It’s not looking great. Mrs Astronomer is in tears almost constantly, and I don’t feel great about the situation. We still have two blastocysts waiting in the freezer at the IVF clinic, and we’ve yet to take the pregnancy test, but it’s probably time to accept that this round of IVF has failed. This isn’t an easy thing to swallow.
I’ve wanted to be a father since – well, forever, really. It’s clouded several relationships before in the past, when you’re after something serious and they’re not; the irony being that several of my ex girlfriends are now parents themselves! There is nothing to be done about that and everybody makes their own life choices, but it is a bit irritating to finally settle down with someone who has the same life goals as you just to be thwarted by biology. However, to dwell on those thoughts leads down a very bitter path; stoic thought leads us to realise that for some things outside of our control there is simply no point getting upset because it doesn’t change matters. Ex girlfriend is now a mother? Can’t be helped, don’t get upset. IVF didn’t work this time around? You did all you could, followed all the drugs régimes, getting upset won’t change matters. Do your best in life and you should never have cause to be upset.
That’s the theory, in practice it’s a bit more difficult than that.
Failure is a tricky thing to deal with. We are all quite bad at dealing with failure, despite the fact that it happens to all of us at some point. Worse, to live a life without failure is to lead such a bland, boring existence that you might as well have not bothered living at all. We all fail in things; careers, relationships, ambitions. Sometimes it’s our fault, sometimes it’s not.
The only thing to do is pick yourself up afterwards, deal with it, and move on. One of my favourite pieces of poetry is Rudyard Kipling’s If, which is worth quoting here in full:
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Kipling is much maligned nowadays as a stuffy hangover of empire, and some of his stuff makes for pretty tricky reading today – most of his writing is told from the point of view of the ordinary British soldier in the days of the British Empire, and some of his work is, well, a bit racist. It’s still worth reading if only because if you only ever read stuff you agree with and can’t engage with in a critical manner then you’re not broadening your mind at all. His work needs to be taken in the context of when and where it was written, allowing us to deal with the subject matter in an adult, intellectual way.
That said, If is one of my favourite pieces of poetry because it deals with failure; the lines “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same” is probably one of the most memorable parts. Success and failure are two sides of the same coin; you cannot have one without the other. Failure comes in many forms, some can be foreseen, others are unavoidable. Some failures are big, others small; there’s a huge difference between failing to catch the bus and failing to catch your best friend’s wedding; some can be laughed off, others have ramifications you carry to the grave. Some are merely the product of circumstance; no matter what you did, you were always going to fail. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it’s just life.
Others are because you’ve been stupid.
Later in the poem, Kipling deals with self inflicted failure: “If you can make one heap of all your winnings/ And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,/ And lose, and start again at your beginnings/ And never breathe a word about your loss”. Failure is sometimes a result of our own stupid gambles, and we’re all guilty of that at some point. It’s one thing to fail for reasons that are not your fault, but quite another to fail because you’ve been a damn fool, gambled, taken that chance… And had it all explode in your face. Jobs, money, and especially relationships all fall foul of this at some point. Ever failed an exam because you didn’t revise, because you thought you knew it all? Ever publicly asked out the beautiful popular girl at school? Ever propose to your girlfriend when actually she’s really not all that in to you? These are failures which haunt, and can take some getting over. Dealing with failure when you have no one to blame but yourself takes a certain kind of moral courage to accept, and it’s not easy. The temptation to make excuses, blame others or ignore the cause is always there. Stoicism is of little help because you didn’t do all you could to avoid failure; you were an idiot. The only thing to do is make peace with your stupid self, learn, and move on.
There are other occasions when failure is catastrophic and not your fault. “Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,/ And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools”. IVF is most certainly in this category. Never mind somebody dying because of failure – this is somebody not even having a chance at life in the first place. And the thing is, it’s nobody’s fault. There is nobody to blame, it’s just one if those things. What are you supposed to do, beyond accept it, and try again?
It has been said that success comes from going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm. Accepting that yes, you’ve fallen, and the only thing to do is pick yourself up and try again. If you fall, try again. And again.
There’s no other way around the problem. It’s exhausting, it’s demoralising, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s the only way to do it. Sometimes you can do it yourself – “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/ To serve your turn long after they are gone,/ And so hold on when there is nothing in you/ Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!'”. Other times, you need help from somebody. When times are dark, everyone needs help, and there’s never any shame in asking for it.
Failure is always an option, but our failings do not define who we are. It’s how we deal with them that does so.
Post script – many, many years ago, when I was a young soldier, my Sergeant Major once quoted Kipling to me: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you… You may have missed something very, very important about the situation”.
He may have had a point there!