Why do we define ourselves by our failures?

For years after my first marriage ended, I dutifully checked the “divorced” box on information forms. I wore the “D” designation like a huge, black letter ’round my neck.

“Divorced,” it said.

“Fail.”

I remember the release I felt the first time I checked “single” on a physician’s form. (Really, did my doctor need to know I’d once been married?) The act felt somehow subversive.

But freeing.

The newspaper I used  to work at is celebrating its 100th anniversary. I left 18 years ago, after my current husband was transferred across state. When I resigned, I was five months into a position I’d never asked for nor wanted, juggling the demands of a newsroom with a new baby.

Looking back, I never think of how I grew in my career or the successes I racked up during my tenure at the paper.

I remember the ways I fell short in that short-lived position.

“Fail,” I tell myself.

A friend says there’s a biochemical explanation as to why we dwell on the bad stuff. The brain relates stress to danger, she says, setting off fight-or-flight triggers. We recall times of trouble as threatening incidents, which is why bad memories and regrets often surface first.

Maybe. Or maybe I’m just a perfectionist. Why else would I dwell on step-parenting missteps (fail); an extra 10 pounds (fail); the friend who decides I’m expendable and moves on without me (fail and fail)?

It’s not for sissies, this trek we’re on. And as I age, it gets harder to push the bad stuff — the regrets — away:

Could I have made the short-lived marriage work?

Could I have performed better in my job?

Could I have parented my stepchild better? Kept the extra pounds at bay? Convinced the friend I was worth her while?

Stop! We hold ourselves to a higher standard than we ever demand of someone else. And — like it or not — failure is a part of life.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve gravitated to a career in the kitchen. There, I have to deal with missteps and embrace the fact that salad breadsometimes — no matter how carefully I’m working — the frickin’ toast burns.

The milk curdles.

The dough doesn’t rise, and the pie crust gets soggy.

It isn’t perfect. But it isn’t the end of the world, either. There’s always another slice of bread; another quart of milk; another bowl of dough or pastry.

I haven’t failed. I simply get to try again.

My hope for 2016 is to shed regrets. To remind myself I did the best I could in the situation I was in. And to remember that I’m not in charge of someone else’s decisions.

Burnt toast isn’t always a bad thing. It’s what we do with it that matters.

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