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The shame of failure. The joy of connection

An angel point at the viewer
My beautiful disaster

I was on my way to give a talk in London. It felt like the most important event of my life. In my mind, it was make-or-break. I had spent 12 months setting this plan in motion. I had spent long hours and weekends preparing the material. And now, here I was, booted and sort-of-suited, waiting for the bus to take me to the train station. I was not ready for the shame of failure and the joy of connecting with strangers.

There was an old man at the bus stop - older than me anyway. He was smartly dressed but slightly stooped with a walking stick. It was clear this man knew the pains of old age, but he maintained an air of dignity and benevolence. Despite my impending meeting with destiny, I felt a need to communicate with him. A need to know something about this stranger’s life.

“How are you today?” I asked. And because he was smartly dress, I added;

“Off somewhere nice?”

As we waited for the bus, he told me he was going to see some friends who give occasional talks to each other. Before I could find out more, he wanted to know where I was going.

“I'm off to give a talk in London” I said as the bus appeared round the corner. I would have liked to have sat next to him on the empty bus and to have found out more about his life, but I settled a few seats away. Some stops before mine, he rang the bell to alight and he waved at me before carefully dismounting from the bus. I was sorry to see him go. More passengers embarked at the stop and I was drawn to watching the slow progress of the old man as he walked away. Then, unexpectedly he turned his face and looked at me very directly. He said something. I couldn't hear his words but I knew he was wishing me well. That my talk would be a success. To me it felt like a blessing of sorts.

With new passengers the bus trundled on as I sat with a sense of well-being and warmth from the old man’s blessing. I was on my way to a meeting that could end my debt. I had made some decisions a year or two back and taken a risk. I had put all my eggs in one basket and today I was hopefully going to see some reward for my effort. Perhaps a payout for the years of work. Finally!

I arrived at my bus stop well ahead of schedule. There was no danger of me being late for the meeting - even if a train was cancelled, I would still arrive with an hour to spare. So, I was relaxed as a person could be as they walked on a knife edge.

At the station the automatic ticket machine was not working and there was a sense of confusion and panic amongst the passengers. There was a Chinese man in his late 30’s carrying a bunch of flowers. We had both paid for our tickets and we couldn't extract them from this dead machine. No amount of nudging and kicking was going to help. My ticket cost a week’s food shopping, but the Chinese man thought there was another machine outside the station. When we got there, a long queue of frustrated passengers were waiting in line, so to relieve the anxiety and the impending panic, the Chinese man with the flowers and I started talking.

“Off somewhere nice?”

And he starts to tell me the story of his brother who died 10 years ago. The flowers are to put on his grave

. I listen as he tells me how he broke a Chinese tradition around death and how it caused a tragic split in his family. I'm drawn into this man's life. I like his energy and the way he talks. Twenty minutes later I have the precious ticket in my hand. Anxiety levels have dropped and as we go back to the platform, the Chinese man with the flowers and I carry on talking. Eventually we're told the delayed train will be arriving in 5 minutes. I want to hear more of his story, but he asked me where I'm going.

“I'm going to give a talk in London”, I say.

He wishes me luck and it felt intimate – like we should hug or something. Perhaps it was a special kind of Chinese luck. An oriental blessing. I sit on the train with a yearning to be friends with the Chinese man. It was so easy being with him. Perhaps I’m lonely.

I change trains at Clapham Junction. I'm still in plenty of time for my talk. The train chugs through the suburbia of South-West London and I think about the talk. This is as prepared as I'll ever be. I have done the hard yards. All I have to do is enjoy it. If I enjoy it, so will my audience. It's a half hour walk through the affluent and leafy venue to my talk. I had thought of getting a taxi so as not to arrive sweaty but it’s a beautiful autumnal afternoon so I walk slowly. I'm relaxed. I have a strange sense of destiny as I arrive at the building. It is the ultimate in relaxed sophistication. Modern design. The décor and furnishings are opulent. It's like an exclusive 5 star hotel with discreet and well trained staff ready to serve your every need.

I knew from the moment I walked into the building I had made a terrible mistake! A huge miscalculation! Everything was wrong. Here was privilege and entitlement. I had no place here. Despite my careful preparation, my phone calls and zooms, they were not expecting me at this time. They thought the talk was on Zoom. The management who said they would be there, were not. I'd spent months setting this up. As I left, it felt like the ever-so-polite staff were relieved to see the back of this down-at-heel, old man. I trudged the half hour back to the station. Shell-shocked. Embarrassed for myself. Annoyed at my stupidity. How did I think this hair-brained scheme would work? With some shame, I texted my partner the word ‘disaster’.

I sat on a bench waiting for the suburban train back to Clapham. The shame of failure started to seep through my veins. A rough looking Middle-Eastern man sat on my bench in an otherwise deserted station. He was burly-looking and smelt of alcohol. He produced a large bottle of Coca-Cola and a bottle of vodka. I felt a twinge of fear and he said;

“How's your day been?”

At that moment in time, I felt a need to be honest.

“Disappointing.” I said.

And from there we started talking about his family and growing up in Tottenham. He was on his way to see his team play in the Champions League. He talked openly about how things were for him, but it was not a one-way conversation. When we boarded the train together half an hour later, I felt deeply connected to this rough stranger. At Clapham, I wished him well and he said that this meeting was special.

When I arrived back home, my partner was surprised I didn't seem upset by events. And I wasn't! I felt a burden had been lifted and that I now had real clarity around the future.

I had encountered 3 angels on my journey. Angels! Yes, angels!! A ridiculous idea! But to me on that day they were most definitely angels that I will always remember. An old man with a stick, a Chinese mourner with flowers and a Middle Eastern drinker.

Perhaps there's a fourth dimension where angels exist when we really need them.

Adam Duncan 2023

Life-Stage regular discussion forums and talk about issues effecting people in the second half of life. For a free invite go to We run workshop, on-line courses and 1-2-1 sessions.

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