When Faltering Happens


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Faltering can happen any time, no matter how well prepared you are and how experienced and skilled and everything.

No doubt faltering has many causes but to my mind, when emotions simply will not remain in the back row of a command performance, the prospects of faltering happening significantly increases.

“I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them” – Patti Smith

To my mind the most common responses to faltering, based on a lifetime of observing myself and others, are probably these:

  1. Blush, panic and rush off the scene
  2. Get flustered; look around for help and understanding, and finding none, hate everyone who is witnessing your falter
  3. Fudge it – think on your feet and invent something to carry you through, and be confident that most people won’t even have noticed (or if they did, they’d admire you for pulling it off)
  4. Pause; name it; apologise for faltering; try again and rebuild your confidence and trust in those who witnessed it by showing courage and self-empathy. Come out not necessarily ‘strong’ but beautifully validating exactly how hard it is to be courageous and dignified, and in that, open the doors to authentic shared humanity.

A few nights ago I watched Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘A hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ as she performed it at the 2016 Nobel awards where Dylan was honoured (in absentia) with the prize for literature.  In faltering she performed no. 4, above, faultlessly.  I confess, I wrote no. 4 with her in mind.

What was her subsequent experience? What was the meaning of all of it?

“When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles. Words of kindness continued through the day, and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?”

We humans have a great propensity for creating meaning out of whatever we experience.

We need to believe in an afterlife because it gives meaning to this one.  We need to see synchronicity in unlikely places because it says that we are real, we are not alone, and we have a purpose even though we don’t always know.  We tell each other “there’s no such thing as coincidence” and yet we’re usually gratified when we experience it.  We have superstitions that we live by – five crows on a telephone wire and then three horses in a field, followed by 17 cars in a pile-up: Why, those are my lucky numbers – I must get a lottery ticket tonight!  We are constantly triggered by past experiences that bring old meaning in our present lives, right or wrong.

And so people in the audience in Sweden created meaning out of Patti Smith’s faltering.

I’ve not seen pictures of her in years and so was astonished to see that she’s also aged. I’d not previously heard about the faltering – I thought the Facebook postings of the video were just some Patti Smith fans celebrating her celebrity – and seeing as I used to listen to her AND was rather enthralled at Dylan receiving the nod from The Committee, I eventually watched it.

“A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” That song haunted me.

At the time when I first heard it, I took ‘a hard rain’ to mean nuclear fallout. I never did spend any significant time figuring out the meaning of the lyrics – I have a hard time understanding poetry.   But what I do know is that the song has always disturbed me – there seems to be some dark truth to it that I can’t quite get my arms around, but my soul shrinks at the fear that the truth might be dreadful.

And so, as I listened and watched, my first thought was that Patti had aged as much as I have. And then she faltered.

My first thought was ‘oh no – it’s her memory; it’s her aging brain’. My second thought was ‘if it can happen to her….’   And then she paused; named it; apologised for faltering; tried again and rebuilt confidence and trust in those of who witnessed it, by showing courage and self-empathy.  She came out not necessarily ‘strong’ but beautifully validating exactly how hard it is to be courageous and dignified, and in that, open the doors to authentic shared humanity.   She faltered in the middle of the second verse:

 Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
 Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
 I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
 I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
 I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
 I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
 I saw a white ladder all covered with water
 I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
 I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
 And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
 And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.[1]

In my coaching training we always heard about how we, as sapient humans, are “meaning making”.[2]  And so, had Patti Smith NOT faltered on the stage on that day, this song – this poem – would not have resurfaced for the explosion of explorations of meaning and would not have caused me to create my own meaning out of her experience.

It’s really simple.  Emotions are a natural part of us.  If they press so hard to come to the surface there’s a reason for it.

If I falter in my resolve to be a positive, supportive, loving, caring human being because an emotional cloud has taken over, it does not make me evil.  It makes me human.    I need to pause; name it; apologise for faltering; try again and rebuild my confidence and trust in myself and with those who witnessed it by showing courage and self-empathy.  And in doing so, I will come out not necessarily ‘strong’ but validating exactly how hard it is to be courageous and dignified, and in that, open the doors to authentic shared humanity.

I sit here, watching a hard Nova Scotian rain falling.  I am grateful to Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and the Nobel Awards Committee for compelling me to spend days thinking about faltering and being human. I’ve found some meaning in some of it.  That newborn baby with wolves all around it:  Maybe it is not the image of slavering hungry wolves. Maybe it is the story of Romulus, founder of Rome, raised by wolves. Maybe it is about compassion. Maybe something to rejig when it feels like anger or judgement is getting in the way.  What if we’re doing the best we can? Patti Smith says “The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?”  I wonder about that, though.  Seeing as it is almost Christmas (I bet you didn’t see THAT coming!),  I have an ask of myself: keep on shifting from judgement to compassion – one day at a time.  If that hard rain must fall, let it not make us less human.






[1] For my preferred interpretation of what the song means, go to http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=4052

[2] “Meaningmaking” is the process of how we construe, understand, or make sense of life events, relationships, and the self.

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