It is rare for us to be forced to choose between life and death. So apocryphal sayings like “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees” don’t seem to apply anymore.
So what is the modern equivalent of the above quote? If it’s rare that we have to put our lives on the line for what we believe in, what do we have to give up for the things we believe in?
For many, a social death is equivalent to a physical one. Being an outcast, shunned by friends and family and colleagues, is, for some, a position more untenable than serious illness. At least in illness you can be surrounded and supported by people who care. But to be alienated? To be actively ignored and ostracised? That is a fate far worse than cancer. So perhaps the biggest sacrifice we can make in modernity, except our own life, is our position in the societal hierarchy?
Who is it that sits at the bottom of society’s ladder? The unskilled, the poor, the minorities, and the failures. It is the latter which I wish to focus on here.
Failure is considered the opposite of success. If the successful are wealthy, the failures are poor. If the successful do interesting work that has a great impact, the failures do monotonous work that doesn’t really matter. If the successful have the freedom to distribute their time and energy and attention, the failures cannot choose how to spend these things.
It’s no fun being a failure. I would know. By the above metrics—wealth, quality and impact of work, autonomy and flexibility of resources—I am a failure. I have a full time job doing forgettable work. I don’t have much wealth. I don’t have many tangible skills. But I do have one thing that I cling to: I’ve found something I love. Multiple things actually. I read. I write. I practice jiu-jitsu. And when my time isn’t frittered away on the inconsequential things I must do to make a living, I pursue these things I love with all the intensity and vigour I can muster.
And it is this experience that has forced me to reformulate the “die on my feet rather than live on my knees” ideal. It’s unlikely that I’m going to have to put my life on the line for what I believe. But it is very likely—it’s already happened—that I’ll have to gamble my position in society on the same things.
The heroic men and women of old died on their feet. They made the ultimate sacrifice. Me? You? Everyone else? The biggest sacrifice we can make is the position we hold amongst our peers. And with that in mind, I’ve come to realise the following: I would rather fail trying to do something I love, than succeed doing something I hate.