Friday, May 20, 2011

Can An Epic Fail Make the Best Memories? Celebrating Imperfection

It seems like we are culturally obsessed with "perfect moments" or "perfect experiences." Take a moment and think about it. How many vacation commercials have you seen where the sun is shining, everyone is smiling, and everything runs on time? How many ads have you seen for "perfect weddings"--without family drama, dress mishaps, timing errors, or broken noses (no, really, the broken nose is a true story--ask me sometime)? My guess is that you've seen hundreds. Now think about the last time you had a party. How much pressure was there to have great food, a clean house, and make sure that everyone was having a wonderful time? What about a work event or special project? I think you get the picture. We are often sold the idea (and it's worth getting media savvy about who's selling) that, with enough effort, and money, we can have "perfect" experiences.

I think that storyline, and the expectations that it creates, are fundamentally false. I also think that they cause harm. It is painful to strive for "perfect" experiences, only to be caught, time and again, by the stumbles and bumps of real life. It is easy to forget that "perfection" is more of a marketing tool than an experience, and blame yourself when things don't reach that standard. I will write more about that another day, but for today, I want to focus on the gifts that come when things go terribly wrong.

Yes, I did just say that there can be gifts from failures. Bear with me here. Try to think about the stories that get told in your family, or with your friends. The ones that everyone remembers. The ones that no one can get through without laughing. Just think for a moment. Now answer me this: somewhere in that story, is there an epic fail? Is there a moment when all the plans went out the window and things spiraled out of control? My guess is that the answer is frequently yes.

Here's one example of this. My family went on vacation every summer. We camped all over the Mid-West, especially Wisconsin. I know that we had a lot of fun, but the details of the different camping trips all kind of run together--they're blurry in my memory. Except for Leech Lake (I know, the name sounds like it should be a joke, but it's absolutely for real). I remember all the details about Leech Lake. I remember that when my mom & aunt said they found this great campsite online, that it even had boat rental, that we shouldn't worry that it was located on Sucker Bay at Leech Lake. I remember trying to forget my concerns and cheer myself up with the fact that the scenery we drove through was pretty. I remember arriving at the "campground" only to find out that they didn't actually have campsites & there was no provision for campfires. I remember the moment when I realized that the mosquitoes were genetically modified so that they treated bug repellant as marinade, as in: "Hey look, I got an "Off" flavored one!" I remember the showers that flooded and the boat that went approximately three miles per hour. I remember sitting in a garbage dump for two hours waiting for black bears that the locals swore would be there (a Minnesota version of snipe-hunting for tourists). I remember my little brother saying, "Sucker Bay--yeah they call it that because only suckers would stay here!" I could go on, but I think you've got the picture. Leech Lake lived up (or down) to everything implied by its name.

But here's the thing. When we talk about that trip, we're howling with laughter. We talk about how creative my brothers got--in order to see wildlife, they baited the edges of our "campsite" with crawfish & marshmallows to lure in the raccoons. We talk about the wicked game of capture the flag we played at a local playground. The sheer scale of the ways Leech Lake failed as a vacation spot has given it a nearly legendary place in our vacation memories.

Now it may be that my family is just a bit twisted (I'm sure that's part of the truth), but when I pay attention to our funniest family stories, there is the flavor of epic fail lurking. Something went wrong, and that something created an emotional imprint that we were later able to read as hilariously funny.

This recognition has been important to me, because when I find myself getting wound up in expectations for how something "is supposed to go," I can pause. I can step back and remember that, if things go perfectly, we'll have a lovely time. But if we're lucky enough to get an epic fail, we'll have memories to laugh about for years. And there's plenty of research that shows that laughter is good for your health!

What about you? Are there any "epic fail" memories that have turned into moments of laughter and connection? Did you have your own personal Leech Lake event?