by Dr. Holly Ordway
It might apply to me, or to you, this poem by W.B. Yeats, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”
Perhaps something you’ve worked at has failed, and you know it.
You tried your best, really did, and so you can’t take the easy excuse of thinking “if only I had worked a little harder…” No; you gave it all you had.
You really cared, so you can’t dismiss it by saying “It’s no big deal.” No, it is a big deal.
People think less of you because of it, so you can’t say “Nobody noticed.” They did.
In all of this, if you have a friend who can tell it like it is, a friend who stands the test of true friendship and stands with you (not trying to get you to hurry up and feel better already), then it is a great blessing.
What next, though?
Yeats hints at it, in his poem. He tells his friend that he is “Bred to a harder thing / Than Triumph.”
What is this harder thing that the friend should do?
It’s hard to “turn away”: to stop trying to shape public opinion, grasping at straws. It’s even harder to “be secret” about failure rather than keeping on the easy path of whining about the injustice of it all.
The hardest thing of all, perhaps, is to recognize, still, that the work is worth doing – no sour grapes.
And to pick up and keep going.
Because, as GK Chesterton said, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Any skill worth having must be worked at, studied, practiced – and the first efforts (and third, fourth, tenth…) will “come to nothing.” The more important the work, the more skill it requires, the more that the preliminary work will, indeed, ‘come to nothing.’
Until one day it doesn’t.
The long, slow, patient work of learning one’s craft, of failing and learning from failure, of leaning on one’s friends and then taking the deep breath and stepping out once again to work: perhaps “of all things known / That is most difficult.”
And worth doing.