In Praise of Failure
I’m told that in the islands of the South Seas there are certain fruits which cannot be eaten and there are some places which cannot be approached. Serious harm will come to anyone who violates these prohibitions, which are called taboos. Perhaps we believe that taboos exist only on these distant islands, but actually we have them too.
In America the idea of failure is one big taboo. We avoid the word. Poor students in school rarely fail, but simply “don’t fulfill their potential.” The incompetent president of an organization is not publicly shamed by failure; a vice-president quietly assumes most of the duties. We try in every way to avoid the idea of failure and thereby to sweeten life by sugar-coating disappointments.
We believe that this is good, the Bible does not. The Bible is really into failure. The Bible practically celebrates failure!
The beginning of Leviticus, the Torah portion we are no reading, through its emphasis on sin and guilt offerings, asks us to face our failures. Yet, how may this help us? We know what we may learn from success, but what may we learn from failure?
In a world where we often are encouraged to play our strengths and celebrate our victories, failure is indeed a taboo. But there is a lot to be said about failure, and a lot to learn.
Three specific things come to mind.
There is an animal in the museum which has been long extinct. It was half-bird and half-fish. It could swim as well as it could fly. In spite of these unique gifts, it did not survive for it could not do either well. Had it failed in one of these skills, it might have escaped mediocrity and have survived.
The same is true for us. As long as the world coddles us we remain mediocre. Excellence in certain areas can only be attained through failure willingly admitted in others.
I am sure we can all recall a time we thought a certain failure would doom us but instead the end result was opening up another avenue for success in life.
I think of that scene in the movie Fame when a young student despairs of ever finding her talent. She learns the hard way that it is not dancing. Lucky for her, through her failure, she learns – as do we in the audience – that she has a gorgeous voice.
II. (In addition to excellence, there is) HUMILITY.
The stores of New York City annually entice shoppers to the city through the Macy’s Parade. The outstanding feature of the parade is a number of large balloon figures of people and animals. The parade attracts hundreds of thousands. The success of the idea has led to bigger and bigger balloons until some were too large to be managed properly.
We, too, become unmanageable if success comes too often; it then goes to our heads. We feel superior to others even if we have only had superior luck. We can learn to be decent, sympathetic, and understanding men, only by having failed once.
The Bible emphasized this through its heroes. Every great Biblical figure, from the patriarchs to the prophets, failed once. human being through their failures.
III. (Finally, in addition to excellence and humility, there is a third by product of failure:) RESILIENCE.
Resilience is what we take away from our challenges, especially our failures. Resilience is what makes us strong.
13 things that mentally strong people avoid:
1. Wasting time feeling sorry for themselves
2. Giving away their power, i.e. letting other people control their actions and their mood
3. Shying away from change
4. Wasting energy on things that cannot change
5. Worry about pleasing others
6. Fear taking calculated risks
7. Dwelling on the past
8. Making the same mistake over and over
9. Resenting other people’s success
10. Giving up after failure
11. Fearing alone time
12. Feeling the world owes them anything
Working through our failures can lead us to resilience.
A story: A man was sleeping one night in his cabin when suddenly his room filled with light, and God appeared. The Lord told the man he had work for him to do, and showed him a large rock in front of his cabin. The Lord explained that the man was to push against the rock with all his might. So, this the man did, day after day.
For many years he toiled from sun up to sun down, his shoulders set squarely against the cold, massive surface of the unmoving rock, pushing with all of his might. Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and worn out, feeling that his whole day had been spent in vain.
But slowly doubts came. He thinks to himself: “You have been pushing against that rock for a long time, and it hasn’t moved.” He begins to believe that the task is impossible and that he is a failure. These thoughts discourage and dishearten him.
Then he thinks, “Hey, why kill yourself over this? I’ll just put in my time, giving just the minimum effort; and that will be good enough.” So that’s what the weary man planned to do, but first he decided to make it a Matter of Prayer and to take his troubled thoughts to the Lord.
“Lord,” he prayed, “I have labored long and hard in your service, putting all my strength to do that which you have asked. Yet, after all this time, I have not even budged that rock by half a millimeter. What is wrong? Why am I failing?”
The Lord responded: “Wait a minute! When I asked you to serve me and you accepted, I told you that your task was to push against the rock with all of your strength, which you have done. Never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. Your task was to push. And now you come to me with your strength spent, thinking that you have failed. Really? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled, your back sinewy and brown; your hands are callused from constant pressure, your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much, and your abilities now surpass that which you used to have. Yes, you haven’t moved the rock. But your calling was to be obedient and to push and to have faith, to trust in my wisdom. That you have done. Now I, my friend, will move the rock.”
When there is a taboo on the islands of the South Seas, nothing can be done about it. Those people must live with it, but we live in the twenty-first century and can face our taboos as we as change them. We may do so with the American taboo on failure, for failure can lead us to excellence and can teach us humility, as well instill within us resilience.
(I am grateful to the American Rabbi with help in preparing this sermon.)