Being rejected is a basic human experience, for which most of us need to be better trained than we probably are.
If you ask Mr. Google about rejections, he’ll give you many lists of famous and successful people who failed over and over again, but went on, and, through sheer persistence, became the stars and celebrities and super-heroes whom we all know today. But what Mr. G. does not tell us, because of course he doesn’t know, are the far more common stories of the people whose efforts, though they may have been very persistent, were just as persistently rejected, and who, in the end, had to give up, and settle for something else, or simply lost heart altogether, and never got anywhere worth getting. For every big winner out there, I’m sorry to say, there are scores of losers.
Maybe that’s the way it has to be, but this realization does not make such experiences hurt any less. Let me tell you about my own three worst ones.
(1) When I was at the British equivalent of High School (1947-52), it was only a minority of us who went on to college. But I had always been academically successful, and took it for granted that I was University-bound. The only question was, which one was it to be? Somehow, I assumed that it had to be one of those two ancient prestigious institutions – Oxford or Cambridge, for which there was, of course, tremendous competition. If you had money, or family connections, which I hadn’t, your path was smoother. Otherwise you could compete for various “scholarships,” which involved a series of examinations and interviews. At that time, Latin was still a requirement, and for a year I took special Latin lessons, for the sole purpose of getting in. I could give you more detail here, but, after 70 years, the memory is still painful. The fact is that I never did get in, and had to settle for the University of London, which had hardly the same glamor.
If I had been able to attend Oxford or Cambridge, I can’t be sure that my life would have been better – but it would certainly have been very different. Coming back to America and eventually getting a Ph.D. at Berkeley, never compensated for the humiliation of having thus been rejected in my home country.
(2) There were only two women in my life with whom I became deeply involved. They are both now dead, so I can feel a little more free to tell you that it was only the first of the two with whom I was ever really in love, and not the second, to whom I was married for 51 years. Her name, when I met her (as a fellow college-student in San Jose, California) was Barbara Jean Smith, and we were together for four years, including a six-month trip to Europe. I was highly principled in those days, and one of my principles was a hostility to legal marriage. Barbara felt otherwise, and eventually (1963) married someone else – (with whom she had a long and fulfilling life). I never got over the shock of this rejection. It was a tremendous blow to my fragile ego.
(3) As if to demonstrate that fragility, from then on, in my most cherished goals, I set my sights much lower – and it was not until 2007 that I made one last great effort to achieve what seemed to me a worthy objective. Every two years, the City of Santa Barbara, which has been my hometown since 1973, appoints a new Poet Laureate. I have always felt that the brief epigrams which I have been publishing internationally since 1967, deserved to be recognized and honored as one-line poems. But, in addition, I have, since my teens, been writing other poetry, which many people whose judgement I respected have considered of a high standard.
So, I made an almost embarrassingly strenuous effort to impress the selecting Committee, and secure that prized position, assembling an impressive collection of my work, together with letters of recommendation from numerous well-qualified fellow citizens.
Needless to say (since it concludes this dismal list), like my home country and the woman with whom I’d hoped to share my home, my hometown turned its back on me.
With this kind of life history, it is surely no wonder that many of my epigrams bemoan this theme – such as number 488:
“YOU MEET ALL MY REQUIREMENTS FOR TOTAL REJECTION.”