Edmund Burke, Donald Trump and Muhammad Ali: How To handle failure

Updated: 6 days ago

Today was supposed to be a life changing day, in my mind. Without getting into too many details, I had a test today that I was certain I was going to pass. All week leading up to the test, it felt like the beginning of every Disney musical where the character sings about anticipating the one upcoming moment, like a dance or some shit, that's going to change their lives forever.

Most of my life, I’ve been that kid that testing generally came easy to. This isn’t a bragging point at all, I’m a complete moron, but when it comes to understanding concepts and then applying them, it usually came pretty easily to me, which is why I never felt the need to study for things. I have rarely, if ever, been in a circumstance where I tried my absolute best, and still failed. I flunked classes in high school and college but all of those were based on my interest level. If I wasn’t interested, I wouldn’t attend, and that would make my marks go down, but then I’d walk in, do a couple of assignments and talk my way out of it. Talking my way out of situations is a skill I developed early in my life.

I realized logic and articulate communication can get you a long way. So I've generally been able to half-ass a lot of life, and when it didn’t work out, I could blame it on the half-assed attempt I put into it. It's worked for me in school and in jobs. If I didn’t do an assignment and I’d get called on by the teacher to answer a question, I would just read off a blank page and come up with an answer on the spot. If I applied for a job and got an interview, I would get the job 100% of the time.

As a 21 year old man, I understood the concept of failure intellectually. I understood it as a concept, and I would often spew the “fail and get back up” rhetoric, mainly speaking from a point of privilege. This isn’t to say I’m some elite successful person either, far from it. I just didn’t need to put a lot of energy into life, and have been able to get by doing the bare minimum.

There are certain circumstances in life that don’t allow you to half-ass. Some situations are like being a pilot, there are no pilots who half-ass their job. Failure exists in all aspects of life, and everyone is bound to experience it at some point. A lot of our generation is sheltered from failure because we’re a bunch of ‘participation award’ ass niggas, but the sooner we realize that failure exists, the sooner we can understand how to deal with it.

I’m usually a calm and mellow person, I like to think that I am usually composed and rational, I would even go as far as to say that I don’t take myself very seriously, and then, I got the result of this test. I was devastated to say the least. I actually tried my best, I studied, I practiced, over and over for days, and still, I failed. I felt like a 4 year old, my eyes welling up with tears as I’m trying to rationalize what had just transpired. Then I caught myself being an absolute pussy and decided to get it together.

The reason this moment hit me so hard was because of how cocky I had unwittingly been leading up to the test. I was bragging about it and speaking about the successful outcome, as if it were a certainty. Then my ego took a blow that my rational mind realizes is minor, but I didn’t know how to explain it to the pain that I felt physiologically. Not only had I been cocky leading up to this test, but this test shows a deeper point about how I’ve been living life. As an artist I often live within the realm of the subjective. I could live life as if the concept of failure didn’t exist. I’ve always feared success more than failure. The ceiling always seemed too high, it never felt like I was closed in. It's been helpful because I’ve followed every whim I had and have gotten moderately successful in many things I chose to pursue, but I was reminded that failure in the traditional, objective sense, still existed.

I felt humiliated, ashamed, I felt like I had shrunk. Then it dawned on me, who do I think I am? Honestly? Who are we to dare think so highly of ourselves, that failure, or success, within man-made constructs, would affect us to this degree? Our egos have skyrocketed to the point where people literally kill themselves because of failure. Incomprehensible to most people, there are some who feel humiliated by what seems to be the ordinary failures of life; and they choose to kill themselves. Things like getting a C on a report card or getting fired from a job have pushed people into committing Seppuku, a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment.

The concept of failure has a long history and has shifted through millennia. It's the reason why the Ancient Greeks would gather to watch tragedies, like 'Oedipus The King' by Sophocles, in order to remind themselves that bad things happen to good people, and we need to sympathize with others as well as ourselves when we are stuck with the unfortunate realities of life. People used to cope with concepts like failure through art and religion, but we have less of that now in our success obsessed culture.

We are pulled by social magnets into constant forces of success, innovation and progress. We are constantly bombarded with everyone’s highlight reel, trapped within a constant motivational 'positivity culture' that makes it seem as though everyone’s trajectory is upwards. So when you go through something that disrupts that trajectory, it can feel like a devastating blow that is happening to you, exclusively. We wrap our self worth around our perceived success.

Now here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic, where millions of people are actually dying and afraid to leave their homes, and I am upset about my little test, affecting my little life in my tiny part of a tiny world. This feeling of the fragility of life caused by nature reminded me of Edmund Burke’s theory on the ‘Sublime.’

In 1757, the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote the first major work on the sublime, in which he sought to scientifically investigate human passions. As a philosophical Empiricist, Burke grounded his argument in sensory experience, and he walks through various feelings, including the pleasurable, the beautiful, and the sublime. For Burke, pleasure was not as strong a feeling as pain, and he proposed that the sublime, which he understood to be our strongest passion, was rooted in fear, particularly the terror brought on by the fear of death. Burke wrote, "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror."

Sublime art often entails large landscapes such as mountains, storms, volcanoes, moments where a human being is small and insignificant in the face of the vastness of it all. That is what we forget when we harp on our own tiny misfortunes. We exist on a floating rock, hurling through an infinitely expanding universe, inside one of trillions of galaxies, powered by one of trillions of stars, as one of its trillion species, but we take functions we created like success and failure so seriously that it genuinely affects us on a physiological level.

Animals in other ecosystems don’t have a concept of failure. Bees have complicated and convoluted systems whose end goal is to produce honey, they either get the job done or die, there is no middle ground. There’s no stressed out bees, in their apartment after a long day at the hive with a blanket over their shoulders, grasping a coffee mug with their shaky bee hands, trying to rationalize their failures. They just get the job done, there’s no alternative. Whatever the premise is that you are operating under, that makes you believe your failure matters, is just another form of ego aggrandizement. It's just your mind playing a trick on you to make you believe you are more significant than you actually are.

This isn’t some nihilistic rant telling you nothing matters and you should give up, quite the contrary. Beyond the mirage of failure is the well of infinite potential. When you’re not so tied up with concepts of success and failure in the eyes of the world or even yourself, you can just keep attempting something, learning and adapting until you get it right, without attaching your self worth or identity to it. We like to attach ourselves to our skills or accomplishments, and we feel personally attacked when those grounds are unstable. But it's all a hoax we play on ourselves to feel more important than we actually are.

No one in the whole world cares about your success or failure, no matter who you are. The United States elections just ended and Trump is projected to be the loser. Leading up to election day, Trump was talking a lot of trash, in front of the whole world. Trump's whole brand is that of a perpetual winner. He’s a successful business tycoon, and supposed self-made billionaire that has his name plastered on some of the largest structures around the world. Trump was even quoted saying ‘I’ll leave the country if I lose to Sleepy Joe.’ Now, Trump's stakes are seemingly much higher than mine. There are people around the world that were dying to see him lose, for that moment.

People tuned in across the globe to see him lose, as if he was Muhammad Ali in the 60s. Muhammad Ali could always back up the trash talk that usually preceded his fights. He was a true showman and credited that part of his personality to Gorgeous George. Ali said it all began when Ali, known as Cassius Clay at the time, met Gorgeous George at a Las Vegas radio station before one of George’s wrestling matches. Clay was 19 and George was 46. George said if he was to lose against Classy Freddie Blassie, “I’ll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off! But that’s not gonna happen because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world,” he said, according to Sports Illustrated. Ali recalled being at the match and said, “I saw 15,000 people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a good idea!'”

In the locker room afterward, George told Clay, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” Ali followed suit. Trump was playing a classic wrestling heel. He has been talking trash for the last 6 years, and it absolutely worked the first time around. He backed his trash talk up and against all odds, like Ali against Sonny Liston, he defeated Hillary Clinton. In the 2020 elections he tried the same tactics, and it seems as though his plan didn’t work.

Now Trump, as an individual, outside of the administration and the persona, must feel absolutely humiliated. There is a world of people that prayed on his downfall and they got exactly what they wanted. As he’s currently going on a Twitter tirade to dispute the votes and claim fraud, he can’t get himself to accept a loss because his ego won’t allow it. He might even be right that there was fraud, but even if it was absolutely legitimate, his ego wouldn’t allow him to gracefully bow out, in front of a world that wants to see his demise. Even in Trump's high stake situation, his loss ultimately does not matter.

The most powerful man in the world today is but a blip in the space-time continuum. Trump's life is just one of 7 billion, that exists within trillions of people in history, and even though he gets a majority of our media coverage today, most people are still in their own lives, worried about their own daily subjective successes and failures that feel as though they weigh the exact same, if not more than the presidential candidacy. It's all relative, it's all subjective, and it's all objectively unimportant.

A painting that describes this phenomena perfectly is 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' which hangs in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. In Greek mythology, Icarus succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father Daedalus, using feathers secured with beeswax. Ignoring his father's warnings, Icarus chose to fly too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water just below the ship. The sun, already half-set on the horizon, is a long way away; the flight did not reach anywhere near it. And the farmer continued to plough, the shepherds eyes wandered and the fisherman continued to fish. The painting points out the ignorance of people to fellow men's suffering. The painting depicts humankind's indifference to failure by highlighting the ordinary events which continue to occur, despite the unobserved death of Icarus. Our failures are only as big as we allow them to be.

The point of this whole thing is to say, we should do our absolute best, train for success, learn as best as we can, try to improve, but also not take ourselves so seriously and understand that, we’re not more than men, not everything is under our own control and we should not attach ourselves and our self worth to man-made concepts of success or failure, both are relative and neither is the end of the world, even if you’re the President. Moments of failure and humility are the most human of moments and ground us in the reality of our absurdity as upright standing monkeys living within our monkey laws, taking ourselves seriously with ties on, it's all bullshit folks, don’t take it too seriously. Take your Ls as lessons and keep it pushing.

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