Lately I’ve been thinking about what Amelia Earhart’s second-to-last thought might have been. Her last thought was likely along the lines of “Well, I guess this is it.” But her second-to-last thought? Perhaps it was “I failed.” It’s the idea of Amelia Earhart’s second-to-last thought that bothers me in the middle of the night.
From what I understand about Amelia Earhart, she was not only preternaturally ambitious but she was also uncommon in that she used her celebrity status to help elevate other female pilots, would-be competitors of hers, through her work with the Ninety-Nines, an organization she co-founded to advance women in aviation. Despite her many accomplishments as an aviator — she was the first solo pilot to fly from Hawaii to California as well as the first to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City to Newark — feats that were impressive regardless of gender and access, in those final moments, I wonder if she was consumed with the heavy, heartsick burden of failure of a nature few of us will ever experience. The weight of it is hard to comprehend. When Amelia Earhart was last recorded trying to land on the very tiny Howland Island on a cloudy day in the mid-Pacific Ocean, she had 22,000 miles of her 29,000-mile flight around the world behind her. With a last report, “We are running north and south,” Amelia and her navigator weren’t heard from or seen again. They had just 7,000 miles to go.
Did she feel regret? Was she angry with herself?
Who knows what those last few minutes were like but I wonder if when Amelia Earhart’s plane went down, she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. Maybe she was heartsick about how the news might be spun, how she was letting down her sister aviators and all the other women who were desperately trying to achieve in fields long denied them.
If so, it may have felt worse than knowing she would soon die.
Like most people, I have failed before, many times, in many different spheres, sometimes with barely a peep, sometimes flaming out spectacularly, though nothing that approaches the grand scale of Amelia Earhart, of course. Flying that close to the sun is going to risk some scorched wings.
Socially, I’ve had more than a few failures: there was the time my freshman year of high school that I thought I looked so snappy in my navy blue turtleneck and leg warmers that I walked straight into a door frame with such a force that I have a permanent bald spot on my right eyebrow. A classroom full of my fellow freshmen turned from their teacher’s lecture to open-mouth gape out the door at the dazed me and the rivulet of blood now running down my face. “Those face wounds, they can really bleed,” the school nurse nonchalantly mused as I sat in her office, her squinting and gently dabbing at my cut. There were more failures, many more, before and after the Eyebrow Incident. Actually, in ruminating on this topic, I am revisiting a tragically embarrassing memory lane I’d rather not skip down so suffice it to say, big, embarrassing social failures are no stranger to me and I am no stranger to them.
Let us continue on the broader topic of failure: I failed my driving test three times, which meant that after that last road test examiner bolted out of the car clutching his clipboard to his chest with white knuckles, I had to wait six months to take the test again. (After this interminable probationary period, I learned how to deep breathe and I finally succeeded with getting my license but I still felt like I had to dash out of the DMV before they revoked it on me.) I failed at my first four jobs in food service, letting me know that I definitely did not possess the skill set and/or temperament for being a passable or even, let’s face it, safe, server. There was no fifth restaurant job. The winter of 2015, I took a part-time job — not in food service, I learned that lesson while still in my teens — that I thought would be a great fit for me but it was a pretty miserable experience. On paper, it was great; in reality, it was kind of a nightmare. After a couple of kind of yucky months, I was let go. Mercy can act in unexpected ways.
These are all failures on paper, but you know what? Today, I am a great driver if I do say so myself. It’s been at least 20 years since I got a traffic ticket and, knock on wood, my driving career is pretty unblemished. During my short and less than illustrious career as a server, I spilled many trays of food and I am pretty sure if the place didn’t close this year, there would still be a party of four from 1983 still sitting at a corner booth at Baker’s Square in Wilmette, IL, waiting for their order. The experience, though, left me with a lifelong respect and understanding of how hard it is to be a good server in a personal, empathy-expanding way that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. (Seriously, waiting tables is hard work or at least it was for me: I still have very vivid stress dreams about being a waitress all these years later.) My pride was hurt when the “dream job” in 2015 fizzled but that unhappy experience was the impetus to get really clear on how I do and do not want to spend my time. Thus Vegan Street Media was born.
My failures are not really comparable to Amelia Earhart’s, though. I bruised my ego, she fell from the sky or starved on an island with a mountain of hopes and expectations on her shoulders.
Maybe, though, when this thought consumes me in the dead of the night, I am thinking about this all wrong. Maybe instead of thinking, “I failed,” Amelia thought, “I tried.” Maybe she thought, “Yeah, well, this is pretty lousy but I’d like to see anyone else do what I did.” Maybe that last minute of her life, she was damn proud of what she’d done, defiantly pleased with herself. To fail as spectacularly as Amelia Earhart, you have to live spectacularly. For us mere mortals, though, living a full life means failure as well and at times, it may feel like we’re also falling from the sky.
You have not failed unless you’ve not tried. With time and distance, there is always learning to take away, always growth to be had, and all those other platitudes that are painfully hackneyed to write but still true. There is so much in the world that petty people would love for us to feel ashamed and embarrassed about. Trying and not succeeding as we’d hoped we would just isn’t worth it.
Let’s allow ourselves to fail. Not only that, really let’s all try to embrace failure. Court it. Own it. Bathe in it. Be proud of it. Welcome it. Dance with it. When we do that, we know we’re flying with the giants.