Recently, the topic of failure has captured my attention. At my Bible study group this week, reading about Rachel and Leah, we talked about fear and failure. Fear of failure, rejection, loneliness, lack of whatever, etc. As a society, “failure” has become one of the worst evils, even a sin (right up there with intolerance). Success has become a god. If a person is not “successful,” whether in terms of money, production, usefulness, achievements or physical attractiveness, then they lack dignity in our world. They may be rejected, criticized, marginalized, determined to have “less value.” But right now, I’m not considering the grave evils and problems arising from how we treat persons. I wish to take a look at the concept of failure, as it affects our everyday lives, even if we don’t take it to the extreme of moral relativists.
Failure constitutes a very real part of each person’s life. Past generations probably knew this better, because they had less illusions of control than modern men. When livelihood depended on weather and the success of crops or the flourishing of animals, things ultimately out of our control, people could not see every failure as “their fault.” Tragic, certainly, when your entire harvest is wiped out by grasshoppers. But your “fault”? Of course not; people knew they couldn’t control the insects.
But now, we think we are in control. Because food, clothes and shelter are readily available, regardless of weather or working conditions (I am talking about first world countries, of course) we think we have control over our lives. When huge, devastating storms come, I don’t think its God’s judgement, but it is a reminder of God’s power, and the fact that human are NOT in control. A hurricane can wipe out everything, regardless of what we have or what we do. I think its important to stress it isn’t one person’s or even group of people’s “fault”. But it is a call to see that we can only depend on God, and with His help, and the solidarity of other people, life can go on.
However, in every day life, when hurricanes don’t bring devastation, we are often saved from our failures, in another harmful habit of modern society. Much, much too often, a person is “saved” from their failures by their parents, or the government. I am constantly amazed how many people are saved from the consequences of their actions, and the entitlement and indolence that results from it.
Friends, we need to learn how to fail. I write this for myself, first of all. I need to learn how to fail. First of all, to not live my life in fear of failure. In one of the first Emily P. Freeman podcasts I listened to, she spoke about considering, before a difficult decision, “am I being led by love or pushed by fear?” If I am making decisions based on fear of failure, that usually translates to fear of the difficult, fear that something that will push me, make me uncomfortable, maybe make me grow…. There is a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that I keep coming back to, “the world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” But what sort of “greatness” does the Holy Father mean? Money, worldly success, power? Of course not. He means spiritual greatness, a greatness of spirit overflowing with charity and the presence of God, a witness to the world of self-sacrificing love.
But how do we grow in love, selflessness, compassion? Through suffering. Through failure. In her book Cultivate, Lara Casey writes that
“I was too afraid to plant anything from seeds at first. I feared I would mess up and everything in my garden would die. And I believed the lie that if I couldn’t do it perfectly, I wasn’t going to do it at all.
I was conditioned to think that messes were bad and doing it perfectly the first time was good. To me, there was no in-between.”
We are so caught up in making the “right” decision, “right” because it will lead to success. So concerned about the outcome and forgetting that the experience, the journey, the work, may be most important. Because if our ultimate goal is Heaven, suffering, failures, and set backs are the path to get their. Undoubtedly, the fact that a life of failure in the eyes of the world can result in eternal life, is a mystery, a paradox. A truth hard to wrap our minds around. If I am seeking God’s will, and doing God’s will, I may very well fail, in the eyes of the world. I may not be thin, wealthy, powerful, influential, or even particularly well liked by many people. But if I am doing God’s will, it doesn’t matter.
On the other hand, worldly failure can also make room for a more quiet and humble sort of success, even on earth. A woman might give up her job to stay home with her children, a man might give up a promotion at work so he can spend weekends with his family. A person might give up a lucrative job to be a missionary, or teach in a Catholic school, or work with the poor. A man might live his life for the Church, as a priest. A woman might consecrate herself to God alone, to save many souls.
Success should only be measured through the eyes of God, but only He knows all outcomes and results. Only He can judge how successful we have been with the life He has given us. Maybe we should be less concerned with results and more concerned with living life, and striving to serve Him in the moment, instead of looking ahead to a big goal we want to accomplish. Because if that goal is getting ourselves and others to Heaven, we can hardly judge our success while still on earth.
And when through our own fault, or perhaps no fault of our own, we experience failure, and that failure brings suffering, maybe we can try to look past the failure to a good, even an eternal good, that results. To see even the suffering as a kind of paradoxical success, for it has brought us to the foot of the Cross.