Art, Persistence, Failure, and Success

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Deep in our evolutionary functions are the traits of tenacity and the call to personal duty. We see these traits among our heroes, and importantly, in all of our activities, where victory can only follow multiple failures and consistency of purpose.
Winston Churchill called Britain to the hardships in its charge to pursue all possible routes to victory in the war with Germany. Addressing the House of Commons on May 13, 1940 he drew the road of blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous
kind. We have before us many, many months of
the struggle and suffering.
The policy:
is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all
our might and with all the strength God has given
us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny
never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue
of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word.
It is victory. Victory at all costs – victory in spite of
all terrors – victory however long and hard the road
may be.
Thus, in Churchill’s call to hardship and persistence, we catch the depth of our instinctive capacity to meet challenges with tenacity and the call to personal duty.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, recently filled out our impressions of Churchill in a new book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. His thoughts are summarized in a recent review by Johnson in The Wall Street Journal (November 8-9, 2014. His main point that it remains to individuals and not ideologies, to change history, is important to remember today:
Churchill is the resounding human rebuttal to
all Marxist historians who think history is the
story of vast and impersonal economic forces.
Time and again in his seven decades in public
life, we can see the impact of his personality on
the world and events – far more of them than
are now widely remembered.
The traits that Churchill demonstrated so vividly any number of times, are inherent qualities that all of us share. Accordingly, time does not create history, history is created in time. As the mayor said: “There has been no one remotely like him before or since.” True, but the force of our individuality contains the promise of victory.
We see the theme of our call in the metaphor of Sisyphus, who, it is said in Greek and Roman mythology, was condemned in Tartarus (Tartarus lies far beneath the disk of the world, it was said. It was deeper then Hades’ kingdom of the underworld. It is used as the ultimate of prisons, unpleasant and inaccessible). Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill and collapsing in agony as the boulder fell downhill once more (Thomas Bulfinch, Myths of Greece and Rome, Penguin Books, 1981).
It is the persistence in face of failure that has brought humanity from victory to victory and the continuation of our evolutionary adaptations, and is, perhaps, the strongest drive in our human tool kit. Every dedicated and extended effort falls in the shadow of Sisyphus. It is true: successes are less evident than defeats, and the only sure way for humans (and other animals) to survive and reproduce is to be able to tolerate failure and continue to pursue avenues that might lead to reproductive success. One advantage of failures is that we learn from experience (history) and therefore don’t have to roll up the same rock to the summit in order to become wiser and more worthy.


Stand Fast


Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, February 6, 2015

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