Certainly there are the exceptions to this rule; either those who started low and then climbed high beyond their wildest expectations or those so full of ego they have no memory of aught but the winner's circle. But such will be the minority, for even those who bear little conscience will remain cognizant of missed opportunities -- if nothing else. In the meantime, the great majority of us also look back upon our personal, as well as our professional, failures and rue the injuries we caused intentionally or accidentally.
It is the nature of the human animal, I think, to do this. To remain critical of ourselves in this way, just as it is very human to not see our mistakes as we are making them. And, in truth, how many of us could live up to the ambitions of childhood? Of the first Spring of adulthood? Even those who stay firm to the same path we pined to set foot on so long ago cannot help but look back and see the marks left by our knees each time we fell.
And, for the rest of us, that great majority who stumble and bumble our way blindly through life and only find some success through the purest of serendipity (if at all) there is the realization that we have reached the final quarter of our lives as a completely different person than we believed we would be in that first quarter. Mind you, this is probably true for nearly everyone just as it is probably also a pernicious illusion.
In any case I don't want to talk about the big failures in my own life or hear about the great mistakes in yours. That isn't where I am trying to go in this essay. Instead I want to talk about the little failures. The picayune hurts we caused others and ourselves.
I don't know if this experience is as universally true as is the awareness of failing to live up to our potential, but I find that it is the little things on my conscience which give me sleepless nights and dark days. All the times I was angry or inappropriate or selfish weigh heavy upon me, most especially when these occurred with those I love but also every time I wronged someone I only met once. Even those times I wronged those whom I disliked. The fact that I might repeat the same mistakes if put today in the same situation gives no absolution; continuing to be an ass doesn't excuse being an ass.
And yet, if awareness of having been an ass previously doesn't stop me from being an ass today, it does make me more careful. It does mean I am more likely to ask forgiveness right after the fact. It does mean I (sometimes) do not say the things I most want to say; the things I would have once blurted out through ignorance or even malice aforethought. Clearly I have learned something, even if perfection is so far away I cannot even see its lights at night.
And that's the thing of it. Once again I don't know if I can generalize this experience to the world, but I have finally gained a sort of wisdom about success and failure and have chosen to redefine them to the small. Every time I ever returned an extra twenty some shopkeeper gave me in change was a success. Every time I ever held open a door for someone carrying packages was a success. Every time I ever made someone laugh without doing it at the expense of a third person was a success. And in these ways I gain some balance in my life. Put some weight into the other pan.
In these ways I give myself the right to think I might be a good, if imperfect, human being.
And that is important, don't you think? Because anyone who wants to be a good person and realizes they are incurably an ass might also realize the quickest way to improve the world is to remove themselves from it. But we are human. We want to survive. If survival means convincing ourselves we aren't so bad, then we find a way to do it. Nothing wrong with that.
You see, I have achieved little in my life that is really important. All that I've done and everything I've touched amounts to less than the ripples of a pebble falling into the ocean. Even should my writings outlive me there is little chance they will improve the common lot of humanity. Few will read these words and fewer yet will find the wisdom of the ages in them for, frankly, the wisdom of the ages don't live here. Never did.
But I can say with all my heart that I never wanted to hurt anyone. That I am sorry for the wrongs I have committed and proud of the rights I have done. Whether great or small, each of my acts has been equally weighed by a conscience and I am glad of it. I am glad even of the pain it brings me, of the sleepless nights haunted by past mistakes. I am glad because this awareness means I can look back at a life filled with ups and downs and realize there is some balance to it.
And somewhere in there lives a cousin of the wisdom of the ages and it is this: life is pain. But life is also joy. If your real ambition is to limit the one and increase the other then you cannot fail. Even, especially, if you do it on the small scale. These are the little things that matter your mother told you about.