FAILURE IS THE END OF SOMETHING, BUT IT’S NOT THE END OF EVERYTHING
A few years ago, a friend of mine brought a conference to town called the Epic Fail Pastors’ Conference. They didn’t invite inspirational speakers whose churches had grown from twenty to twenty-thousand or whose personal stories of facing overwhelming odds led to triumph with the help of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and you can, too! They invited participants to speak together about their failures. They were invited to bring their fear, their botched expectations, their low numbers. They brought their cardboard cut-out, smiley success stories and acknowledged them for what they were: bullshit.
They weren’t meant to wallow in misery, exactly, but to sit with one another, to affirm the difficulty of ministry and, you know, life. Every one of us struggles to make connections, to be understood, to make headway in the things we love or need. It almost doesn’t matter whether the expectations of success were so ridiculously high that failure was inevitable and something to protect ourselves from, or whether the thing was the simplest possible task and we still failed. It hurts. Failure is a constant, solidified by our inevitable deaths.
So these folks talked about failure as a spiritual discipline. The conference sounded amazing. And I failed to go. Because of course.
These kinds of things—small things like missing a conference just as much as big things like failing to dismantle racism in America—make us feel bad, shameful, less than everyone else. I don’t know what your stuff is that you bring to the table, but I’d bet a lot of money that you feel like you fail just as much as I do. You’ve got your own flavor of failing at things: loneliness, pain, silence, emotional constipation. Personally, I’m never good enough, haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t fixed enough. I mean, look how broken the world is: clearly I’ve failed. Me, personally.
The good news is: of course you don’t know what you’re doing.
Does that not sound like good news? It is, though. None of us know what we’re doing, not really. It’s all an experiment. And we’re not very good at it a lot of the time. But that failure is not the end. Or, rather, failure is the end of something, but it’s not the end of everything. It’s part of the process.
Kids are bad at everything at first: tying their shoes, feeding themselves, even holding up their own heads when they’re born. Because of course they are, they’ve never done it before. It’s hard as hell and they fuss and cry and when we encourage them to keep experimenting with their muscles and brains, they get it.
We adults are bad at everything at first as well, but we’ve got these big brains putting a value judgment on it, calling ourselves stupid or failures, calling other people the same things. Honestly, adults are just toddlers with larger vocabularies to hide behind. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A few years ago, one of my students at the Edge House left. I call it his walkabout. He’d had a transformative summer as a camp counselor, playing games and teaching skills and being present for the campers’ struggles. It was one of those right-place-right-time moments. But leaving something so good and coming back to the regular world is hard. The everyday of life back home can feel like death. Plus, he’d changed his major at the beginning of the summer. He felt good about the decision but also felt the burden of more time in school and the expectations of his parents. And his siblings had started at our university. He loves them, but he’d made a particular kind of life here. How would they fit into it? What would they bring with them from their childhood relationships that he’d rather leave behind? Then he and one of his good friends ended up in an unrelated conflict, which we worked on mediating, but when he realized the pain he had caused her, it all felt like too much. He needed to take a break. Not from school, from us. So he left.
This clean break was a new thing, and it was like an open wound. It was open-ended as well; we didn’t know when he’d come back or even if he would. We agreed to give him space to work out his shit and to reconnect with him at the end of the semester. So far, so good, right?
Wrong. My immediate, visceral, so-powerful-it-must-be-the-truth feeling was that his leaving was a sign that everything I’d done since I’d started six years before was wrong. Everything. Obviously, right? This one beloved student needing to work on his shit away from us means we have failed from the get-go. Lies. A friend of mine says this is the devil at work, not an external force of evil but that little, insidious voice that tells us everything we do is garbage.
His leaving was precisely what we needed as a community, not because he was dreadful, but because we needed to learn how to let someone leave and how to trust them to do their own work. We needed to identify and separate our own emotional stuff from his. As painful as it was, it was good practice. He came back to us the next semester more grounded, more aware of himself, and now we can’t get rid of him. He doesn’t shy away from conflict and has helped other students feel their feelings and ask for what they need. He has been a huge positive influence on so many people’s lives.
The life of this community is a process, not a product. What we felt in that moment as failing at friendship and conversation was part of a larger story we couldn’t yet see. Because of it, now we’re kinda good at friendship and conversation.
Something stands in our way of opening ourselves up to failure as part of a process. I think it’s that we humans spend a lot of energy on a binary between success and failure that doesn’t exist. It’s not that those concepts don’t exist, but that the binary itself doesn’t. It’s that old saw about trying not to see in black and white. We think if we’ve succeeded at all, we can’t be failures, and if we fail, whatever that means, we can’t possibly be successful. But that’s so static, so unhelpful, and not even a good description of what’s really happening.
Think about it this way: in the scientific community, not knowing something is what makes you a good scientist. It means you’re able to ask questions about what you don’t know. We read an article at the Edge House called “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research.” It’s not an anti-science screed but the experience of a scientist who, stumped about something he was working on, went for help to his experts-in-their-fields mentors, and they didn’t have the answers. He realized that of course no one had the answers to his questions, that was the whole point of doing the research and experiments in the first place. He writes, “The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.”
What I love about failure as part of a process instead of an end point is how freeing it is. In a competition model, there are too many restrictions on the possibilities. A conversation becomes something you can win. A relationship becomes something you can win. Love and freedom and sobriety become things you can win. In a process model, we’re always growing and changing rather than racing for one completed, perfect moment. When we experiment, we are ready to see something new and, because of that, we are much freer.
A couple of years ago, we had a lovely new student who dove right into the community, washing dishes after dinner-church, being vulnerable in his discipleship group, playing board games at the drop of a hat. He was thoughtful and compassionate. He just slotted right in to our communal life. Partway through the semester, he shared something with me that caused him deep shame. The specifics are not something I will share here, but I was uncertain whether I was required to report them to a higher authority and deeply conflicted about whether I thought I should. I said all this out loud. In the midst of a tender, honest conversation, I tried to navigate between support and clarity about my responsibility.
He was devastated, obviously. As it turns out, I was not required to report, but the damage had been done. He wanted nothing to do with me or the community because of what he experienced as a betrayal. It crushed me. As I imagine it crushed him as well. I was doing the best I could with the information I had, and I could not have failed in a worse fashion. I hear he is doing well, out there in the world, and I have learned to be more circumspect and to consult before speaking. It’s not much, but it’s good news, even though it doesn’t always feel that way.
We are all moving from one place to another—emotionally, spiritually, physically. It takes a hell of a lot of time and a courage to see failure not as the end but as a possibility.
You don’t win life; you live it.
Except from How to Human: An Incomplete Manual for Living in a Messed-Up World by Alice Connor ©2019 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission.
The Rev. Alice Connor serves as a campus minister at the Edge House, a gathering place on the edge of the University of Cincinnati. She is the author of Fierce: Women of the Bible and their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation.