The Warm Embrace of Failure

With the end of the school year upon me and my students, the thoughts that run through the heads of some are often laced with the pungent and distinct fear of failure.  Students need to graduate to their next level of education, whether that be college or just the next grade, and some of my outliers’ grades are just not up to muster.  So, some do not make the cut and thus must repeat the work they did, or did not, do.

What strikes me most odd about these students is that they often become the one’s that keep in touch with me the most or are the happiest to see me years later.  I recently ran into one the other day, who was a terrible student both academically and socially when in high school, failing many classes, yet when she saw me, she energetically embraced me and relayed the many adventures she had been having as a photographer for National Geographic.  She admitted just how terrible she had been in school, but explained that she had figured herself out and was now much happier, hence embodying a key aspect of failure:  it’s good for you.

We as a culture deeply fear failure and try to avoid it at all costs, thus we avoid risk.  Artist Robert Sauber explained that, “If you have no regrets from the life you have lived, your biggest regret should be the life you haven’t lived.”  If we have no failures in our lives, then perhaps we are not taking risks that carry with them the possibility of failure.  So, if we spend a lifetime being failure averse, when failure comes, we don’t know how to handle it.  According to a recent New York Times article, not long ago the faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe an observation they had made: students seem unable to cope with simple struggles because they do not experience any setbacks in life.  Because their students have little to no experience with failure, when it does come, they don’t know what to do and experience complete fallout as a result.

Now, several colleges are attempting to tackle the problem head on by recoloring the idea that failure is something everyone experiences in life, and that people manage to come back from it.  Students are learning to “fail well” and cope with the event when it comes.  Upperclassmen and faculty relay stories to the incoming freshman about failures they’ve experienced, and how they learned to pick themselves back up, learn a lesson, and grow as a person.  Smith College’s program now explains that, “When you can fail well, the world opens up to you.  There’s no challenge you can’t pursue, no risk you can’t take, because you know how to get back up when you’re knocked down.  Your potential for change, for possibility, and for success as you define it becomes limitless.”

Thomas Edison, in referencing his experience with inventing the light bulb, was quoted as saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  The more he failed, the more he learned.  His multiple misfires and miscalculations built him to be a better, more innovative inventor.  His optimistic outlook on failure and the lessons he gleaned from them led him to his greatest creation.  Embracing failure helps us to re-evaluate, leading to a stronger self and outcome.  The author of Psalm 119.71 likewise reveals that, “It was good for me to suffer, so that I might learn your statutes,” as his failures gave him a greater appreciation of God’s promises.  Like athletes that re-watch footage of their losses, analyzing where they went wrong and how they can do better the next time, if we take the time to allow for failure as a means of self-improvement, we can grow as a result.

Our failures are not an  end but a beginning to something newer and better.  In 1968, while working at the 3M company, scientist Spencer Silver was attempting to come up with an extra strong adhesive but failed and developed just the opposite: a very weak one that easily peeled off when removed from any surface.  As the project was deemed a failure, another scientist (Art Fry) took the adhesive papers and ended up using them as bookmarks in his church hymnal book because they didn’t leave any glue residue on the pages, thus inventing Post-Its.

This week, take risk where there is the possibility of failure, and if failure should come, take that failure and turn it into a time of learning and personal growth.  Utilize it to grow not only closer to Him, but also to evolve as a person, being one who sees life not as a safe haven for success but repainted as a welcoming series of failure opportunities.  Amen.

A Mouthful of Guilt and Shame

As the dentist checked each of my teeth meticulously, he uttered a brief technical term number of concern to his assistant.  I had been going to this dentist for many years, and for the last 43 years, I had proudly proclaimed that I never had a cavity, a fact of which my dentist was acutely aware.  So, much to my surprise, after he finished the exam he informed me that, in fact, I had a small cavity on the surface of a back tooth.

He braced himself and said to me, “Now, I know that this is probably a blow to your ego,” (it was), “but it’s only a small spot that can be easily removed.”  I was devastated, my perfect record shattered.  I reeled with questions about how this could happen, what did I do to deserve this, and where had I gone wrong.  He reassured me that it was next to nothing, but the problem with next to nothing when it comes to cavities is that it’s still a cavity.  You can’t be a little pregnant: you either are or you aren’t.

All week, I felt completely self-conscious about my mouth.  I could feel it slowly spreading to my other teeth.  I felt as if I needed to be brushing more, that my mouth was now diseased, and that more importantly, everyone could see that I had somehow been neglectful of my oral hygiene.  Make way!  Unclean!  I was mortified to be seen in public, as everyone would probably figure out that I had ruined myself and developed rot in my teeth, and I’d appropriately be labeled a leper.  

As far as ruined perfection goes, like the small blight on my perfect pearly whites, as Christians, even the smallest sin makes us imperfect sinners, where He is perfection incarnate.  Because of our sin, we cannot enter His presence.  Although this fact bears repeating, it is mostly a given in Christian circles.  The idea is pressed firmly into our souls.  Yet what we often overlook is Satan’s role in the proceedings after forgiveness occurs.

As a forgiven people, we frequently forget our forgiven status, as Satan will do whatever it takes to drive a wedge between us and God.  So, he reminds us of our sin by means of guilt and shame, having us relive our mistakes repeatedly in our minds.  Resultantly, our thoughts run in circles around our faults, errors in judgement, and poor choices as we become anxiety-ridden with the labels we place on ourselves as defined by our actions.  Satan makes these sins seem much bigger than they actually are in our own head, but we forget that since God has forgiven us of our sins, He also forgets them.  In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he writes to his audience regarding God’s opinion towards our sinful actions: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (8:12).  If we are remembering our forgiven sin and feeling shame, those feelings are not from God, as they reject the forgiven aspect of our actions, thus denying His nature and separating us from Him.  If we focus on being forgiven, we are grateful and give thanks and praise; if we focus on the guilt, we are embarrassed and want to run and hide.  So to keep our focus on Him, we must remember this fact:  our sins and mistakes are not as big or as noticeable as we think they are.

In her TED Talk entitled “Don’t Regret Regret,” American author and journalist Kathy Schulz talks about a tattoo she has on her shoulder that she lamented from the moment she got it.  After talking about how horrible it was for the majority of the talk, she finally reveals it to the audience, as they all realize that it isn’t that bad of a tattoo.  In her reveal, she helps us realize that often times our mistakes in life are not as ugly or as big as we make them out to be to ourselves.  Similarly, when I finally went to get my cavity filled, it was on the surface so much so that I didn’t even require any anesthesia.

Putting an optimistic spin on the way we view our mistakes, Schulz summarizes with the idea that our mistakes should not “remind us that we did badly; (but should) remind us that we can do better.”  If we can view our own forgiven sin in that light, we prevent Satan from haunting us with the specter of our past selves, and we can instead see the perfect image of our future self that will be made complete in His glory.  For that reason alone, we should not allow guilt and shame to control us, but we should rejoice in that we are free from the shackles of self-imposed disgrace.  Sometimes a small fixed cavity is nothing more than that.  Amen.

Grief:  It’s What’s for Dinner

Like most afflictions in life, the loss of a loved one is never easy to deal with.  Although coming to terms with the absence is the eventual goal, the journey there may be even more important, a trek that is paved with gut-wrenching, heartbreaking feelings that most identify as grief.  Although difficult to experience, grief is part of a healthy diet, nourishing us back to our former well-being.  Avoiding it or shortening it before its time deprives us of the nutritional healing it brings.  The grieving process, the steps needed to come to terms with the death of another, cannot be rushed or skipped, or we run the risk of further complications.

I recently learned that a local middle school, after the unexpected suicide of one of their classmates, encouraged students to attend services, counseling, and bereavement meetings, only to be rushed back to class in two days’ time.  The students, of course, deeply missed their friend, and the school didn’t acknowledge the loss beyond what they already had done in those couple of days.  They felt they had done their job.  So, the students hadn’t really grieved it fully and processed the death of their classmate, a process that takes time.  Thus, feelings of abandonment set in, and as they are now graduating high school five years later, they still hurt deeply about their loss.  What the school hadn’t considered was that they had shut down the students’ grieving process, a necessary part of their lives, when what they should have been doing was serving up a healthy amount of empathy and understanding.

The grief process is a natural reflex to an unnatural act.  As humans, we were never created with the intent to die, so most likely, we were also not created with the ability to cope with death, hence it takes time to heal.  Grief affects almost everyone at some point, but when it happens to other people, as Christians we can help people through the process.  Although grief manifests itself physically (weakness, aches, headaches), emotionally (anxiety, frustration, anger, guilt), socially (isolation and uncharacteristic behaviors), and spiritually (questioning one’s beliefs and faith), and can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months after the loss, the easily determined countermeasure that meets the needs of all of these symptoms comes down to one simple serving task:  being there.

Nothing works better in helping others through the grieving process than spending lots of time with them.  Christ sets forth His example with the model in Psalm 34.18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God’s response in our time of grief is to be closer to us, as closeness brings comfort.  Knowing that God is walking with us through our time of loss helps us in overcoming the abandonment issues we feel during grief.  In addition to the amount of comfort that God provides, we should follow His example and serve up our support to those who grieve through our close proximity to them.

Surrounding loved ones with our presence is the best approach to helping them through grief.  Comfort is found in having other people around, as we feel that we are not alone when people are with us, going through the process alongside us.  Like the Jewish tradition of Shiva, which is practiced by having family members stay for a week in the home of the deceased and just sit with the immediate family, our constantly being with those who mourn brings ease and healing.

This ancient practice hearkens back to earlier years, even to the time of the death of Lazarus.  “Many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (John 11.19) when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus came soon after, as well.  They all knew that great comfort is found in others, as during the grieving process, we feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.  Sometimes, comfort can come in the form of a stranger, if that stranger has been through a similar situation, hence the presence of bereavement groups.  When a Delaware pastor lost his teenage son to a car accident years ago, his wife received comfort from a call in the middle of the night from a Midwest stranger who previously had similar circumstances.  Surrounding the bereaved with hopeful people doesn’t cure the issue, but it brings much needed healing that takes root.  Our presence and our reaching out shows that we care.

In times of loss, knowing that we are not alone allows the process to move towards a time of healing.  When we see others grieving, it is important to surrounded them with others.  Had the school system spent more time working with the students in helping them through the process, many today might not necessarily be at ease with what happened, but would most definitely be at peace.  It is this peace that we can introduce to those who grieve by simply being there.  Whether sharing a meal, a night out, or just sitting quietly together, the therapeutic result of basic human connection and interaction nurtures grief and helps the person process the loss.  By answering the call to reach out to the grieving, we are doing His work by serving others and allowing a much-needed process to thrive so that a time of healing can grow forth from it, bringing peace to a place where there was none.  Amen.

Faith Maturity and Teenage Romance

As one who has explored the hallways of the American high school educational system and has taken great care to study the teenage species, I’ve observed many different types, but the most categorically defined ones are the dating couples, which can be broken down into three types, as their behavior is characteristic of the longevity of their relationship.

The first type of couple is the newly formed to six-month couple, which is the most easily spotted of the three.  With this twosome, the couple tends to be easily discovered fully connected to one another, longingly staring into each other’s eyes, which is often punctuated with a lot of family-friendly-ish groping and deep kissing.  This type is not aware of the world around them, specifically unaware of the hordes of people that are fully grossed out by this type of behavior.

The second type is the six-month to year couple, which is defined by the close proximity of the two species to one another, and is observed to have a tremendous need for constant hand-holding.  Occasionally, the amorousness is necessitated with semi-long eye connection, although, unlike the first type, this couple can be easily distracted by friends and onlookers, especially when the male species’ best friends or teammates have an offer of something better.

The third type of couple is the year-plus couple, a type which is not easily spotted in the wild because of 1) the high extinction rate of such couples and 2) the severe lack of physical proximity and public displays of affection, except for the hard to observe quick lip-peck given as the class bells ring.  

Although humorous, there is truth to these observations, especially as these relationships are examples of the often changing and sometimes maturing habits of these couples.  In short, as time goes on, the behaviors towards one another change and grow.  As many who are in long term relationships can attest to, in the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and “puppy-love,” where both members physically can’t get enough of one another.  Then, as the relationship develops and deepens, the physical nature of it cools and intimacy is achieved not always through physical means but through intellectual and emotional means, hence why young couples make-out in public whereas older couples are content to sit and enjoy one another’s company.

The same can be said of our faith.  When I was a younger, less-mature Christian, church was a full body workout.  Praise singing at the top of my lungs, tears, falling on my face in prayer: it was all very emotional stuff.  Yet, as I matured in my faith, I’ve found that I prefer a more introverted, quieter, intellectual approach with God.  That’s not to say that I don’t’ feel the occasional flutter of excitement when I feel His presence; it’s just that my faith has deepened and I now practice differently, because it ran its natural course that way in my journey.  In fact, CS Lewis often spoke of his matured faith as less emotional and more cerebral, where his growth was a natural outcome of spiritual practice, not a decisive one.  If we exercise our faith enough, we observe natural growth and change.

So, does this mean that extroverted, excited Christians are immature?  Not so.  What I’m suggesting is that if we are growing in our faith and maturing in our relationship with Him, then there should be a noticeable progression in our behaviors.  Ephesians 4.15 reveals this maturing in our faith:  “But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head.”  The process of growing in Him and maturing in our faith is a natural result of our spending time in His presence, as we more intimately develop our faith in Him.  

Like the couples in the hallways, our understanding and ways of intimacy grow in an observable direction the deeper the involvement.  If we look at our faith and practices and notice that they are the same today as they were in the very beginning, then the evidence suggests that we are not growing and maturing but instead have become stagnant and stunted.  Faith maturity is the natural outcome to involvement.  We might know what we want our faith and practices to look like, but we need to work to get there.  Older couples didn’t achieve deep intimacy right away: it took work, dedication, and exploration.  So, if you find yourself static and dormant in your faith, maybe a greater involvement or commitment is what is needed.  Set yourself on Him, and growth will come naturally.  Like in any relationship, your behaviors and practices will develop naturally and deepen in meaning only through getting to know Him more.  Then, you will see a noticeable change and evolution to your faith practices, a sure sign of deeper intimacy and spiritual maturity.  He longs to be closer to you, so commit yourself to a deeper relationship with Him.  Amen.