Learning How to Fail
Learning How to Fail
January 31, 2016
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
Jeremiah was reluctant to speak on behalf of God, but he had nothing to fear on that front. Jeremiah had been chosen, he was filled with the words of God. Nothing could go wrong, could it?
That of course depends upon what you mean. Jeremiah was filled with the words of God, no small matter. But what if those words were not the ones Jeremiah would have chosen to speak? What if those words spoke of terrible things to come, destruction and exile and condemnation? Jeremiah was chosen to do something he did not want to do.
The life of Jeremiah came at an interesting time. It was around the year 600 B.C. give or take a few decades. Israel proper had been split into two kingdoms, a smaller Israel to the north and Judah to the south. The north had been conquered and made a part of the Assyrian Empire. The south was technically independent, a vassal state paying tribute. But the Assyrians began to decline and were eventually overtaken by a new imperial power, the Babylonians.
While this was all going on up north, the Kingdom of Judah saw an opportunity. It would no longer pay tribute. The hope was to gain strength enough to defend against other claimants to the Assyrians’ fading influence, to reunite the Kingdom of David. It was a dream. And it did not come true.
Now came Jeremiah. He supported the move away from the Assyrians, but he also cautioned against reestablishing the old kingdom. One of the innovations sought by reformers was to centralize worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Jeremiah was not a fan. This may have been related to workplace politics, as Jeremiah came from a faction of priests who had not supported King Solomon to replace King David. The winning side under Solomon had its own priests, who were in power at the Temple in Jerusalem. By centralizing worship to that one place, those successful priests would have become dominant while Jeremiah’s faction would be on the outs. But it was probably more than just sour grapes. Temple worship was moving farther away from the basics, obedience to the commandments and the covenant with God.
The Temple was built by Solomon, you might recall, and it was a cornerstone of his prestige and power. Temple and palace were intertwined and would also be intertwined in terms of their fate under foreign occupation. When the Kingdom of Judah was eventually destroyed by Babylon, so too was the Temple of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah was filled with the words of God, words that told him that something terrible was about to happen. Jeremiah tried to save Judah from what he foresaw. But it did not work, he did not succeed. But why?
Jeremiah was appointed over nations and kingdoms, able to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. And yet his desired outcome, the salvation of the Kingdom of Judah, did not come to fruition. Jeremiah saw what was going to happen and he knew why it was going to happen. But he could not stop it. For all his ability and effort, he could not change any of that. Jeremiah failed.
What does it mean to fail? The word comes from the Latin verb fallere, which means to deceive. It is unclear how that meaning transmogrifies into the current understanding of the word, to fall short, to be lacking in action or outcome. Perhaps it was a deception of effort, or even self-deception of likelihood.
Think back to Jeremiah. He was chosen by God, filled with words and power, so his failure, on the face of it, makes no sense. With such ability, could he not simply bend everything to his will, use the power of God to make everything right? With authority on his side, with wisdom in his heart and mind, you would think this would all work out. But there was just one problem. No one wanted to listen.
Imagine you are a well-intended person, living a reasonably good life. You do the right things. Mostly. You go to temple, listen to the priests, pay attention to the laws. Nothing special but not too shabby either. Suddenly, you are living in troubled times. Your leaders are trying to set things right, to return to tradition. Sounds perfectly reasonable. Back to the way things should be.
But then comes this troublemaker. Listen to me, listen to me instead. Do not go back to the way things were, go back to before that, before things went wrong. Before you had a king. Listen to me.
Who invited him? Just do not make eye contact, maybe he will go away.
What was Jeremiah saying, by the way? That the kingdom would fail. That the Babylonians would take over. So do not make it worse by defying them. Other priests said Jeremiah was wrong, that God would deliver them from Babylon if they just moved forward, if they just tried to make Judah great again. There is an old saying that it is not enough merely to succeed, others have to fail. Well, everyone failed.
This week, as I was thinking through the meaning of the word failure, I compared it with the notion of sin. Sin as a mistake, a moral lapse. A sin could be a failure, but not every failure seems to be a sin. You might not succeed even if you did not make a mistake. Maybe you were not ready. Perhaps events moved beyond your ability to control. There are many ways of not succeeding.
When I set out my series of sermons this month, in no way did I have prior knowledge as to the outcome of the Patriots game last Sunday. No explicit or implicit criticism was intended. But sports provide a good analogy for this topic. The National Football League is made up of 32 teams of professional athletes with dozens of coaches, managers, and other support personnel. These athletes have dedicated much of their lives to sports. And every year one team wins it all, while the other 31 teams lose. Hundreds of people fail at what they were trying to achieve.
Now, now let’s be fair. They did not fail, they simply did not succeed. So you mean they lost.
Well, yes. Which means they are losers.
No, no, that is not exactly true, is it?
Is failure to win the same as failure? In November, we will have a dozen or so former Republican and Democratic candidates. One person will win the final election. The rest will lose. Did the others fail?
Clearly you can fail even if you have the ability to succeed. You can fail even if you try your hardest. Again, the word “failure” has its roots in the Latin verb to deceive and my pet theory is that the person who fails is the one deceived – deceived into thinking that only his or her efforts mattered. Failure sometimes comes regardless of how hard we try.
Failure is to fall short of an intended goal, to lose the race, to have one’s efforts fall apart. It can also mean to disappoint one’s self or others, perhaps the hardest, sharpest edge to that word. Others were depending upon you, others had their expectations mixed in with yours. When a quarterback throws an interception, when the goalie allows the other team to score. Team sports are a team effort, until one person messes up. There is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in fail. And so the feeling of having failed can fall onto one person, often with the subtle help of others who do not wish to be seen as having failed.
No one wants to fail, at least not at something important to them. And yet failing is the pathway toward learning and ultimately to greater ability and perhaps even eventually success. Most people are not naturally talented, not child prodigies. Gaining expertise takes time and effort, the supposed 10,000 hours of practice alluded to by one or more self-help books. And even with that great effort, even with some of that natural talent thrown in besides, not everyone can succeed depending on how you define success. There is only one Super Bowl, one Oscar, one Nobel Prize. Everyone wants a gold medal, not silver or bronze.
Well, actually, that depends. It depends on what you mean by success just as much as it depends on what you mean by failure. Our perceptions and expectations factor into this dynamic. There are matters that are important to us and then there are matters that frankly mean little or nothing.
I have a confession to make, one that is nearly a hang-able offense in the City of Boston. I do not care if the Patriots win. I do not care if the Red Sox or the Bruins or the Celtics win. I am not rooting for some other team, by the way. I just have never been terribly invested in the outcome of professional sporting events.
Now when I was playing sports in high school and college, it really mattered to me whether we won or lost. It mattered because I was working hard toward winning those games. It was not a story I was listening to and watching, it was a story of which I was a part. And this made the victories sweeter and the losses all the more bitter at that time.
What about other forms of failure? Not just sporting events, but more important life events. What do I do if I try really hard but do not get into the prestigious law school or medical school I wanted, the college of my dreams, the most well-appointed pre-school.
Wait a minute – pre-school? Why would I care about which pre-school I was in? That seems ridiculous. Who would care about that? Who would care if I did not make the travel soccer team? Who would care if I did not get enough playing time in lacrosse? Who would care if I did not get the lead part in the school play?
I might care, of course. And my parents might care. My cheerleaders in life, those who pay attention to what I do and who wish to see me succeed. They might care. And they might care so much that they might want to help me out.
Just a little, mind you. Playing catch in the back yard – a bonding experience really. Some lessons, then maybe a private coaching. Just a little. Some after-school programs like tennis or swimming, dancing or violin, language training or Russian math. All good, in and of themselves, by the way, all useful and healthy activities. Useful and healthy, until they are not.
Over my years at the church, I have noticed a range of concerns affecting school aged children and their families. One of the recurrent concerns is a pervasive existential anxiety, one that steadily grows as the children get older, reaching a fever pitch at some point in their junior years of high school but not necessarily cooling off once that particular year is over. There is a sense of everything turning on a few classes taken, some test scores tabulated, a couple of grades that may supposedly shift the course of one’s entire life. Success or failure hangs in the balance.
This may seem like a peculiar observation, perhaps owing to that fact that my daughter is a junior in high school. That is true and she is a bit stressed out. She is not the only one, I am guessing, facing or having faced this brick wall of anxiety.
When I was younger, I heard someone use the term “rat race” and I was unclear as to what it was about. Where were these rats going? What did they get if they won the race? I did not know that it had to do with the sometimes treadmill-like existence of adults in the working world. I was blissfully unaware of those pressures as a child. There was no pressure on me. There were no looming expectations of doom if I did not make the grade, make the team, make the cut.
I remember when I was applying to college, I did everything myself. I never went to any of the colleges to which I applied, all six of them. I typed some forms and waited to hear. When I got the first acceptance letter from a college, my mother wondered why I had not responded to them to accept. She thought I had to take the first one who got back to me. My parents were not familiar with or involved in the process. Years later I was a little upset in hindsight because I had had to do all the work myself. Other people had their parents falling all over themselves, helping them with the applications, taking them to the schools, writing their essays…
Yes, writing their essays. Doing anything to make sure that their child had an edge, got a leg up. Succeeded rather than failed. I am certain this helps some children to achieve certain goals. They get into better schools, they get on better teams. Parents will become more and more enmeshed in their children’s lives in order to ensure such success. And that level of involvement in their children’s lives can be wonderful. It can be useful and healthy. Until it is not.
I was reading an article in the Washington Post about college students and their parents. In one example, a student was having trouble with a roommate. So the parents called the president of the college to resolve the issue. Not an advisor, not an RA. The president. There is a line between parents being supportive and parents being intrusive. Helping children is good, depriving them of a sense of independent accomplishment is not. When parents are the ones pushing for some goal, some accomplishment, children get the blue ribbon but they often do not have a sense of accomplishing anything.
But they won, they got in, they succeeded. Why does this matter? Because such success does not mean anything. It is the much-maligned participation trophy in Little League. It is the cap and gown graduation ceremony for kindergarten – I went to two of them. It is the trappings of success without the application of effort. Such success has no meaning and, worse still, children never learn how to fail. What to do, how to feel when things do not go exactly their way.
When I was growing up, the children and adults would play cards together, penny ante poker mostly. The adults were good and they never let us win. Eventually all the kids would lose and the adults would finish each other off. But we kept watching to see who would win. If my grandfather won, he would laugh and walk around his chair yelling in Italian. He would scoop up the money victoriously. And then he gave it to all the children, another reason we stuck around to the end. No one ever let us win, so when we occasionally won a hand it was a big deal. That win mattered. Years later as adults our own children would play and we would not let them win. And when they won, it mattered.
It is hard to let the people we love struggle, particularly when we can help out. Make that mean old teacher back off. Move from the waiting list onto the acceptance list, from the bench onto the field. It is tempting. But when should it end?
When I was a Selectman [on my local town council], I was responsible for choosing new members of the police force. I was surprised when I learned this, feeling unqualified for that particular job. Soon a position became available and applicants came forward. At some point, I was contacted out of the blue by someone who supported an applicant. I was contacted by the applicant’s mom. At that point, I came up with a hard and fast rule. If your mom or dad calls me about whether you should be a cop, you probably should not be one.
When parents assume responsibility for their children’s successes, children lose that responsibility. Those children may initially succeed, even until early adulthood. But eventually they will face some adversity at work or in marriage or in life. They will undoubtedly fail at something and they will not be prepared for it. They will not know what to do, when to stay or when to go, when to call or when to not. Failing is hard. But never learning how to fail will make each brush with failure even harder.
Children who are allowed to struggle may eventually figure out what they can and cannot do. Children who never make the team will have to decide if they are even interested in winning at the contest or pursuing the sport in question. And children who are allowed to fail will have to learn how to contend with those feelings of failure, how to get through them and what to do next. For someone who has never failed, any hint of failure becomes the end of the world. And that is easier to handle when you are seven than twenty seven.
The word “failure” may have its roots in deception, but no one is deceived when success is itself a deceit. An honest failure can teach more than the grandest of successes. And success earned through the efforts of someone else really does not mean much, for all the unearned glory. Helping someone work through failure is time better spent.