No one likes admitting to failure but I’ve been reading a lot lately about its undoubted spiritual benefits, which, although they don’t yield themselves up immediately, are hidden in the tapestry somewhere, if we can unweave some of their more difficult threads.
Failure comes in may guises, and mainly we go through life trying to avoid it at all costs, praying our loved ones be spared failure too, of course. Unemployment, relationship trouble, ill health, letting stress ruin daily life. We don’t want failure, we want success, especially in church life.
For what is good about failure?
The answer lies in one of the paradoxes of being human, endowed as we are with gifts from on high to use in the service of others (my definition of the human calling). The paradox is that our chiefest gifts are also our biggest liability, in the spiritual world.
And the spiritual world, by the way, is the world we all live in, whether ‘religious’ or ‘non religious’. A writer in the Church Times this week pointed out that the surveys which apparently show that for the first time, there are more ‘non religious’ people in the UK than ‘religious’, are heavily skewed towards religion being rather narrowly defined.
The result is that the ‘non religious’, who often have world views that do contain room for the Transcendent, are all lumped together with little differentiation. Amongst people who often tell me ‘I’m not religious but…’ are all sorts of stories of ‘spiritual experiences’ which would indicate an openness to learning through very difficult life experiences, which is what learning from failure is all about.
Richard Rohr, American Franciscan, writer and activist, talks about life as having two halves (e.g. in Falling Upward, 2012). In the first we rely on our natural gifts and talents to ‘build’ the container of our life – our identity in the world, our qualifications, job, relationships, family and home; in the second we find that the things that used to be our best props now actually get in the way of spiritual growth. We must let them ‘fail’ to move forwards.
Because our gifts are also our liabilities. Only an experience of failure, involving either health, confidence or work issues, has the power to bring us to the end of our natural resources, and into the spacious place that is our growth in God.
Having done singing, teaching and preaching, I always thought having a loud and commanding voice was an asset; I now realise it just stops others from saying their thing. If I talk a lot, I cannot listen. After a spell of ill health, I return as a quieter priest, feeling a lot less like asserting my natural leadership, more like taking a back seat while other very capable people run the church.
Leaders are tempted to feel they’re the only capable people around; church leaders especially. I realised the great temptation in leadership one day when a fellow priest, exasperated at the apparent inertia of his congregation, said in a meeting, ‘it’s not me that’s the problem; it’s them.’
Even by saying this, he revealed that in fact it was his competency, his tendency to be conscientious, his taking on responsibility naturally, that were precisely the things which held everyone else back from being/showing forth those things themselves.
Failure, especially of health and strength, even if temporary, removes you from your position, from your capabilities, so you have to rely a whole lot more on God, and others step up. Jesus said ‘without me you can do nothing’, but we don’t really believe him, until we are incapacitated.
When does the second half of life begin?
It’s not possible to say – it will depend on your personal circumstances and life experiences, not just your age, but some say there’s a turning point around 35. Of course, we’re all living longer in the West, but three score and ten (70) used to be our allotted span, so 35 seems like a good point to learn some wisdom.
I recall spending my 35th birthday crying in a cemetery. I’d done with child-bearing and had already experienced a hard bereavement. It really did seem like something was dying, but then something opened up: but not before the tears; and only after they were lived through could I move on. There was no way round the sense of something ending, I had to walk fully conscious through it.
Then: something called ‘the rest of your life’.
53 will be another turning point: when (as I anticipate) the last of my children will leave home. Another ‘what will I do with the rest of my life?’ moment, another grieving of something passed, a chance to soberly admit the hormones will frankly never be the same again, and then to let something (Someone) infinitely larger than me take over bit by bit, as I paradoxically, become more and more ‘me’ in the process.