“For him, the whole of life is a grand failure, which, I must say, isn’t my view of the world at all” - Veterinary Practice
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“For him, the whole of life is a grand failure, which, I must say, isn’t my view of the world at all”

“Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In a strange, rather contorted way this quotation has been made to sound inspirational in today’s modern, meme-driven world. But put it back into its context from Samuel Beckett’s novella, Worstward Ho!, and positive it most certainly isn’t.

Beckett’s famous quote continues: “First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.”

That doesn’t sound inspiring, does it?

Worstward Ho! was Beckett’s downbeat version of Charles Kingsley’s rather, to Beckett’s mind, over-optimistic Westward Ho! If you have read any of Samuel Beckett’s other work, you’ll know that he was very much a glass-half-empty sort of a person, and “Fail better next time” seems to encapsulate the futility of existence for Beckett. For him, the whole of life is a grand failure, which, I must say, isn’t my view of the world at all. So, for that reason, sitting in hospital at the bedside of a friend who has tried to take his own life, I find it very difficult to be able to empathise, to work out how he can have thought that life was really no longer worth living.

For once I find myself completely at sea, adrift, not knowing what to do to support him. Just being there is all I can do. And, as I sat there, I slowly found myself understanding, maybe, just a little bit of what he is feeling: a sense of complete and utter powerlessness. Perhaps therein I can catch a glimpse of the world of Samuel Beckett – a world where the light at the end of the tunnel seems more likely to be the headlamps of an oncoming train than the hint of a bright, sunny future.

That is something I’ve never considered before. Previously for me, there was always a silver lining to every dark cloud – that’s my very nature. Am I now able to see just a little of the world of someone with the opposite frame of mind to mine? And yet, even in that shadowy world there surely has to be a “fail better” – maybe even a “succeed”! After all, the very fact there is a shadow means that somewhere there is a light shining. 

The key thing is that for a time, even if only for an hour or a day, I can feel that sense of futility that took my friend to the very edge of the abyss. And by sensing that, hopefully I can help him when he wakes, not by anything I can say – words are not enough, or maybe too much – but by just being there and listening, even to his silence.

As a profession we are at greater risk of suicide than any other, with working alone, stress and the close proximity of relevant drugs all playing their part in making that decision possible and achievable. Perhaps the fact that we find ourselves so often saying “I think that for Flossie… or Juno… or Tigger… saying goodbye would be the kindest thing to put them out of their pain,” means that we end up thinking that for ourselves. But we are not Flossie, or Juno or Tigger. We are people with friends who love and care for us, even if it doesn’t seem so at the time.

If all seems dark now, there are people to reach out to – people who will reach out for us if we let them, if we tell them where we are at. But, of course, that whole world of hopelessness makes someone in that position think there is no bright future – or no future at all. And with the new variants in the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat, the current certainty, of global warming and economic crises that is a very easy thing to think.

But as I write this, it’s the beginning of advent: a time of looking forward. They say that the sky is darkest just before the dawn. I don’t know if you have a faith, but whether you do or not, at advent there is a future. One where it’s not up to us to save ourselves, and we are not alone.

For confidential support 24 hours a day please contact Vetlife Helpline on 0303 040 2551 or email via their website.

David Williams

Fellow and Director of Studies at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at the vet school in Cambridge.

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