Getting Better at Failure

Getting Better at Failure

I’m not very good at failure. That’s surprising really because I’ve had plenty of practice! What I mean of course is not that I don’t know how to fail: rather, I’m not good at handling failure. Failure sends me into a tailspin of self-criticism, and makes me run for cover lest I be seen by others to be the person I really am. Recently I’ve had two such moments. I won’t go into details because they involve other people, but in the first, I lost my temper. It was a situation where it was appropriate to get angry, but I was too intense and prolonged. I was wrong. In the other, I received some disappointing news that made me feel unheard and misunderstood. I sank into the doldrums of self-pity, despair and self-absorbed bitterness, disregarding the impact that would have on innocent bystanders. You’ll be happy to know I have since worked through (and apologized for) my behavior, but I still keep beating myself up for my reactions: “I shouldn’t be like that; I should be beyond this by now. I’m a hypocrite. I’m an angry person, a self-absorbed person—a bad person.”

Ay, there’s the rub! A bad person! Somehow, I manage to let my behavior define who I am. I am a bad person! Or an angry person. Or a self-piteous person. Or a mean person, a prejudiced person, an insensitive person… the list goes on. But the reality is that most of the time I am actually a reasonably good person, with a genuine desire to be a positive force in the world that often expresses itself in positive behavior. So why don’t I let that define who I am? Rather than seeing myself as a failure, why don’t I see myself as a person in process; an unfinished article that is making progress over time?

Two strong cultural forces seem to overpower us here: our obsession with perfection, and our distain for patience. Somehow, we’ve been sold a lie that the world should be perfect, and it should be that way right now. Whether it’s our job, our bank balance, our popularity, our bodies or our souls, we have no patience with imperfection. The contrary reality is that we all have weaknesses and struggles—but they do not define us. We are all in process, we are all on a journey. Just like a fine wine, we all need time to mature, and there are no shortcuts. Goodness is not a static state of existence, but the practice of willingly engaging with and working at our problems and weaknesses. Goodness is acknowledging our frailty, and this requires great vulnerability, honesty and openness.

At Cedar Ridge, we call this “the journey”: an understanding that we are all in process. We also call it “discipleship”: the practice of following Jesus over the long haul. It’s a journey that takes great courage because it means working at ourselves and choosing to become the best possible version of ourselves. On this journey, failure ceases to define us, and becomes instead an opportunity to see our need to change, and an invitation to grow.

This kind of process thrives in an atmosphere of acceptance. When we begin to see ourselves this way, we see others in the same way—as imperfect people on a journey. Not only does this help us create more compassionate space for others, but it also empowers us to give feedback. Sharing feedback no longer needs to be seen as a way of judging or defining someone as angry, mean, sad or bad, but as way of creating more opportunity for people to grow on their own journey. It assumes that they too want to become the best possible version of themselves.

Ironically, religious communities often create an atmosphere of judgment and shame in which it’s virtually impossible to be honest and vulnerable. Sadly, we often do this to ourselves too—our own refusal to accept our weaknesses and failures shuts down the space we need to engage with them. So we run, we hide, we avoid, we make excuses, and we fake it. But the biggest tragedy is we don’t get to work on ourselves, and we don’t get to grow.

Jesus constantly reminded everyone of God’s love and acceptance, and challenged everyone into a process of transformation. Paul the Apostle urged us to spend life “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12). Both invite us into a journey. So I refuse to hide behind the myth of perfection; I refuse to stay the same. I am renewing my resolve to courageously and honestly accept myself and give myself the space to grow. And I invite you to do the same.