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"Staying with" Failure

March 24, 2022
By Fanny Gravel-Patry

Credit: Dan Cristian Padure
“Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures.” - Jack Halberstam 2011, 187

At this time last year, I participated in the 3MT competition — or, rather, I attempted to. Even though I had practiced my speech to the point of mastery, when it came time to deliver in front of the jury, I completely blanked out. I live with generalized anxiety and heightened stress can do this to my brain. Like people whose chronic pain flares up during challenging times, something happens in my brain, a kind of fog or glitch, that hinders any attempt at clear cognition. Even though I have learned to live with this condition — I have participated in and facilitated countless conferences, I teach, and I lead workshops — moments like these still occasionally happen, a reminder of my difference and vulnerability.

But I am not here to tell you how I learned from this experience, grew as a person, and how failure is a necessary passage towards success — How many times have we heard this story before?

Instead, I want to consider my experience with mental illness to explore the possibilities of “staying with”[1] failure as something we need to embrace rather than try to overcome.

Failure: A Particular Experience of the World

This reflection is inspired by the fact that for many of us, failure is not a temporary state we can just move past, but it makes up our very experience of the world. For example, for those of us who live with a psychological impairment, and who have been historically disadvantaged by the schooling system, failure shapes our everyday lives. Failure is the position we occupy, the point of view from which we learn to see ourselves as different from the norm. For a long time, people with psychological impairments were treated as objects of knowledge rather than those who produce it. Women, Black and Indigenous peoples, were incarcerated, scrutinized, and abused based on madness, producing very narrow understandings of mental illnesses which were then taught in universities. These notions have been further implemented through educational standards which reinforce differences and celebrate neurotypicality. For these reasons, the very fact of living with a psychological impairment is still perceived and experienced as the failure to produce knowledge.

But what if instead of trying to fit within the norm, and overcome our brain’s differences, we embraced the position of failure as a possibility to reshape our understanding of the world and of ourselves?

Credit: Markus Spiske

A Way of Knowing

Living with a psychological impairment or neurodivergence often means that our brains may not function like the norm. This can manifest in the way we frame problems, how we view the world around us, or how we write. So many times, during the PhD I hesitated in participating in projects, did not send an article because it would not “fit” with the scholarship, or just did not share an idea because I thought it was not clear. I realize now that so much of these fears came from the fact that I had internalized my difference as producing “wrong” ways of knowing. “Staying with” failure implies to recognize these limiting beliefs and acknowledging that failure produces a certain knowledge of the world, one that exists outside the constraints of normative cognition, and is equally valuable. It is by “staying with” the failure to reproduce normative knowledge that I have come to realize that my differences allow me to do research that stands out and that provide alternative viewpoints.

Reimagining Temporality

In a world that celebrates productivity at all costs, it is also easy to feel like a failure when your brain does not allow you to follow a normative pace. In academia, so much of our success relies on our level of productivity: how many hours we work in a day, how many articles we have published, and how many projects we are involved in. When you live with a brain altering condition, it can be hard to follow this pace. In my case, I never know when anxiety is going to hit, or what is going to be its trigger. I must live with knowing that no matter how much I want to do things, sometimes my brain just will not let me. “Staying with” failure can look like measuring success according to our own temporalities rather than those of outside ableist forces. When I compare myself to my peers, it can be upsetting because I do not follow the same rhythm, but on the other hand, I know that I have achieved so much considering the many challenges I have faced because of my illness.

Building Connections

“Staying with” failure is also a way to build connections. Researcher and self-help icon Brené Brown argues that embracing our own vulnerability enables to make “authentic” human connections. Making mistakes and admitting failure is one way to be more vulnerable and open ourselves to others. It shows others that we, too, go through challenging times and that failing is part of life. When we admit to failure openly, we open a space for others to recognize themselves and be more accepting of their own mistakes.

"Staying with” failure is reclaiming our position as knowledge producers, recognizing the value of our contributions, and building coalitions beyond final outcomes and successes. Even though my experience at the 3MT did not go as planned, and that it opened old wounds I thought I had healed, at the end I gave my all and this is what counts.

[1] The expression “staying with” is inspired by Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble in which she argues that building more sustainable futures relies upon embracing the trouble of being together on a dying earth.

About the author

Photo of Fanny Gravel-Patry

Fanny Gravel-Patry (she/her) is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the communication studies department at Concordia University. She holds a BA (2012) and MA (2015) in Art History from Université de Montréal. She studies mental illness, media practices of care, and digital visual culture.

Her dissertation looks at the Instagram practices of women living with mental illness and their use of the app as a tool for care. Her work was recently published by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal in a special issue on digital images. In addition to her research, Fanny has been the communications officer of the Communication Doctoral Student Association since 2019 and she is an active member of the Feminist Media Studio. Her doctoral research is supported by Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Société et Culture (FRQSC) and Concordia University.

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