Exulting in defeat: On steadfastness in friendship
By Andrew Lazo
In the sinuous sentence of his poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,”
William Butler Yeats manages to speak hard truth, give great encouragement, and offer an almost eternal perspective, all while using punctuation to perfection.
The narrator’s friend has evidently lost some struggle against an opponent of dubious ethics. How deftly the narrator chucks the friend under the chin while offering three pieces of sage advice:
- Look your failure full in the face (“take defeat / From any brazen throat”
- Remember you’re made of sterner stuff (“Bred to a harder thing / than Triumph”)
- Move forward by making wild and exultant music (“like a laughing string. . .amid a place of stone”)
Oddly enough, this sounds suspiciously like the Gospel to me. All kinds of scriptures leap to mind as I consider these three principles.
This first lesson, facing failure, resounds in me, for I know that in admitting how I fall down I find one of the most healthful things I can do. For I fall down. All the time. And I’m obviously not the only one, for this admission appears in many of the great sources of wisdom by which I live my life. It’s the first of the Twelve Steps of recovery, it’s the second of the Four Spiritual Laws, it’s the jumping off place on the Romans Road. Better still, it’s what Frederick Buechner calls “the magnificent defeat.”
It’s also a fundamental and ongoing reality in my own life, this daunting mirror of examining my faults: I certainly know how to make a resounding mess of things. Ask any of my friends—they’ll agree. I fall short, on an almost comically consistent basis. But as I have said here before, I have excellent friends. They know my foolishness and foibles, and they have the courage to call me on them, the grace to forgive me for them, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Yet much like Yeats’s narrator, they perceive that I am made of sterner stuff than my tendency to fall short or fall down. They stick around (I presume) because they see the keen difference between my work coming to nothing and the mistaken idea that coming to nothing means that there is nothing inside of me. They know (as I wrote in a poem describing my father) my tendency to imitate the tide “who could neither stay / nor keep from coming back again.” They know that if I disappear for a time, I’ll be back, often carrying some small but enriching treasure from that journey. They’ll wait, and hold the parts of me that I let sometimes let slip through my fingers. Isn’t that what friendship at its finest does, perhaps best of all?
This too has a scriptural component. I have friends that stick closer than brothers and sisters. And above all, I know something about the steadfast love of God (listen, for example, to the steadfast, saving drone of Psalm 136), a refrain announcing loving-kindness again and again both throughout the Bible and the history of those who read that book and try to put it into practice. My friends act as mirrors or as stained glass windows, shining through their lives the light of the almost-incomprehensible truth that God knows and cares for me.
The staggering fact of the universe to me remains that I, that we, somehow have found ourselves the object of the Divine Affection. And struggling to accept this fact offers me, and perhaps some of you, the great wrestling match of the soul—certainly in itself “a harder thing / than Triumph.”
The deeper in the ground of my being that I manage to plant these truths, the greater the hope I cherish for a crop to come from them. I trust these truths in secret, seeking to exult in them. And because at my best moments I manage to agree with Lady Julian that “all manner of thing shall be well,” I seek to sing my own song, a new song, even if my work comes to nothing. I put into practice the imago Dei as best I can today. I make something mad, exultant, full of ragged beauty and joy.
And I try to trust that all the nothing I make of my work will not define or defeat my song. I know down to my bones that divine power is made perfect in my weakness. That must be how it works, if for no other reason than the fact that so often I have so little else but weakness, and that divine power and steadfast love remain inscrutably, enormously beyond my understanding. And that’s enough to fuel my mad song.
And here I depart from Yeats. I don’t think this is the most difficult thing to do. When asked if it was easy to love God, C. S. Lewis said, “it is to those who do it.” To cling to love in a world where one’s work and hopes and dreams can come so quickly and crashingly to nothing—this is indeed the most difficult of all things known, until I start to do it. Poetry helps. Writing this to you out there helps. And my friends who hold me while I sing help, perhaps most of all.