I remember in black and white an old routine, maybe it was Dick Vann Dyke, in which the protagonist descends a staircase in an amusing demonstration of life’s non-linear progression. Each step downward was accompanied by hesitations, switch steps, and several steps backwards up the staircase. I have know idea how he actually made it to the bottom, and in my recollection of the performance, he did it with hilarity and nuance— and grace.
Oh, if only setbacks felt that way.
A few weeks ago, on the verge of delivering my dream Pilot Fire tools to you, my software developer suddenly quit the project. Reading his email felt like a punch in the face.
Actually, I felt it more in my gut like when a plane drops suddenly and my stomach comes into my mouth. I got all sweaty and felt simultaneously angry and embarrassed and nauseated. I freaked out, too. I denied, negotiated, shook my fists, scrambled, and even cried a little.
And then I calmed down. The transition from pain to peace was almost startling. Maybe I was experiencing one of the few benefits to getting older. I got calm because I knew that, while this was a setback, I’d handle it. I’m not completely screwed. I’ll get you those tools soon enough.
Here’s what I know about big setbacks. (I’ll write it like it applies to you and not me.)
- It feels shitty when you realize you’re screwed.
- You are rarely totally screwed.
- Setbacks make it clear what your real priorities are.
- Sometimes it’s best to stop completely.
- Sometimes you have to keep going.
- Good friendships are built around setbacks.
- Setbacks give you a chance to practice grace.
While grace has its connection to the divine, it’s generally messier than most of the elegant demonstrations we label as graceful. A dear friend of mine died last week, and his wife, broken to pieces by it, shows such grace through the dark gritty honesty of her grief and the fierce clarity of her love. I can hardly compare my piddly little setback with hers, but my small moment of grace bares a small resemblance to hers.
Maybe grace isn’t just about the beauty and sweeping arcs of ballerinas flying through the air. Maybe grace is about the beauty and sweeping arcs of human setbacks, the awkward backwards steps and stumbles, the punches to the face that give us the marks of character, the grueling pain we suffer in the face of life’s crushing truth: people we love die, and yet through grace we somehow land on our feet again, and we do eventually make it to the bottom of the stairs.