Do you remember the quote ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal’?
Across the internet, I’ve seen this quote attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche and a multitude of others, including fashion designers and other influencers. I’m not sure what its true origins are, but I do know that, all through my 20s, it created low-level anxiety for me.
Much like the term YOLO might do for twenty-somethings today, this quote kept me constantly aware that I only had one life, that I had to make the most of it and live my best life, or else. Or else what? Failure I guess. Falling short. Not living up to the high expectations I had set for myself.
Today, I want to turn this quote on its head and ask: What if life is just one big dress rehearsal? What if it’s a series of lessons, failures and the odd success that all add up to the main event? Is there even a main event, one particular moment? No, it’s the whole. We may have a few delightful moments that seem perfectly executed but they’re just one part of the series.
And it’s the failures that help us grow.
Each failure contains a lesson. Lessons build character. And it’s character that makes our performance on life’s stage that little bit grander.
For me, a great character is built on a foundation of integrity.
Psychologist Erik Erikson developed a theory of psychosocial development, suggesting that people pass through eight distinct developmental stages across their lifespan. In his theory, integrity is the ultimate stage. As we near the end of our lives, we ask “Have I lived a meaningful life?”
One answer is yes, and that’s what Erikson's theory calls integrity. If the answer is no, maybe your life has lacked integrity, and there lies despair.
Erikson’s characteristics of integrity include:
- a sense of wholeness
- lack of regret
- feeling at peace
- a sense of success
- feelings of wisdom and acceptance.
The despair that comes from a life lacking in integrity might include feelings of regret, shame or disappointment. But even if we have these feelings, there is hope. In fact, contemporary approaches to palliative care include Erikson's concept of integrity versus despair to support people who are looking back over their life and don't like what they see.
Overcoming despair involves embracing the bloopers, the mistakes and the downright fuck ups. And forgiveness is central to this. Personally, I find forgiving myself to be one of the hardest things to do. Self-flagellation is so ingrained in me that I’ll continue punishing myself for a slip-up long beyond its use-by-date. I’ve written about my imperfections before, and I’m still grappling with this. What I really want to do is to reach the end of this grand performance with bucketloads of integrity.
I can’t push this theatrical metaphor any further without quoting Shakespeare who, in As you like it, wrote:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
Like Erikson, Shakespeare laid out the stages that a person may go through in their life. Shakespeare’s interpretation of the end was a little less positive than Erikson’s though:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
I’d much rather keep my teeth, as well as my integrity, but I understand that we may face oblivion. Some believe that we meet our maker on the other side of oblivion and that just might be when our performance is assessed.
In the meantime, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. That quote can actually be attributed to Nietzsche, and we can thank him for it. A group of scientists at Northwestern University in the USA believe that this saying is true, at least in the lives of wannabe scientists. They found that failure early in one’s career leads to greater success in the long term for those who try again.
So, dear readers, let’s try and try again. Let’s embrace our mistakes and our snafus and let’s get on with the show!