Failing Proof

‘It all fails, you see; there’s nothing, no piece of munitions-grade plate in the whole world, that can stand up to Bollo here and the big, big hammer. It’s how it fails that matters.”-the Proof House, K.J. Parker

Bollo and his big, big hammer. That is one of many indelible images I’ve taken away from finishing the “Fencer” trilogy by K.J. Parker. I’m not sure I’d recommend the books – after taking me along on quite a journey, I’m not sure that I am happy with where we ended up.

But I did enjoy the image of the Proof House, an imaginary testing area for armor. The idea (and I’ve no idea how realistic this is, but he tends to base his books on facts) is that when armor is mass-produced, samples from each batch are sent for “proof”. “Proving” the armor is basically stress-testing it. Making sure that when it is struck with, say, a big, big hammer, it crumples.

Image courtesy Derekskey (Flickr CC)

Transmission of Force

But wait, you say (if you’re like me), if it crumples, that means it fails, right? Apparently not. If the armor crumples, it means it has absorbed the force of the impact. If, on the other hand, it holds firm against the force, that’s bad – it means the force of the impact has been transmitted to the much more vulnerable flesh below.

It put me in mind of my idea of ego – remember, the tinfoil balloon? If things like ego and pride are there to help protect our self-identity, maybe it’s a good thing if we can crumple and collapse them – basically, laughing at ourselves – when challenges come our way. Whether deserved or un-, stuff is going to happen that is going to affect our self-identity, our self-image. Distance from a loved one, physical injury, unexpected bills, even just a rude waiter, all of it can hit us in exactly the wrong place – in the seams of the armor we’ve created – and feel like they’ve pierced us to the bone. Metaphorically, of course.

If we have a supple pride, it can absorb and recover, with a rueful grin and a Yep, that sure sucks, and on we go. If, on the other hand, we’re full of stiff haughtiness because Things Aren’t As They Should Be, then we may turn blow after blow…but in the end, the big, big hammer will crash down and through the armor onto a very unprepared soul.

Failure is the Only Option

With all due respect to the Green Berets (and that is an excellent article) the fact is that nothing lasts forever. In the end, time conquers all, and while things can last far longer than we expect – whether it’s Homer’s Odyssey or Jersey Shore – eventually, everything ends.

Seriously, I know this is supposed to be a “life” post, but if I’m the one who has to break it to you, so be it: we’re all gonna die. If you choose to consider death a “failing” of the body (and I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate) then, at some point, we’re all going to “fail.”

But it’s how we fail that is important. It’s turning that inexorable fall towards whatever waits below into a graceful swan dive. It’s eating the delicious strawberry even while the tiger hovers above you and the alligators wait below, it’s taking just enough time to make the world a little bit better for those you share it with before you’re done passing through it.

Sure, we all fail proof, in the end. But we can fail well. We can fail gracefully.

I think that might be called “winning.”

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