Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Success Of Failure

The pursuit of success is inculcated into our person from our earliest days. Problems arise, and we move to surmount them using whatever skills are available to us. Successfully overcoming problems feels good, both as an accomplishment as well as obtaining the fruit of the resultant reward – food, drink, cuddling, sleep. It is good to be a victor, conquering challenges, gratifying needs.

Somewhere in this repetition of “I succeed,” two things begin to be added on: the approbation and positive attention from others over our accomplishment; conversely, the criticism inflicted when success is not achieved. Success has a traveling companion always lurking a few steps behind: failure. A delicate balance is set into place between success (approbation) versus failure (criticism). We set an objective to pursue; we expect success from our efforts (why else the pursuit?); we know failure can occur instead (do we risk it?). For some, success progressively becomes the end game itself. Being successful at success replaces the original objective we claim to be pursuing. Fear of failure becomes the true driver behind our efforts.

So the noble doctor saves her patients, but actually fights to vanquish the threat of illness. The politician gets elected but has no genuine concerns for his constituency. The artist continues to create, desperately looking for that “follow-up second success” to duplicate her early acclaim. The scientist toils in the lab determined to prove his hypothesis no matter the human or financial cost. Failure must be avoided; success trumps failure.

Except that sometimes failure is the most very right thing we need at certain points in our life. As nice as success may feel, even when driven by fear-of-failure, repetitive success over time can breed a sense of inevitability, of unfounded certainty, of unquestioned right-ness, of arrogance. We come to believe that we alone are solely responsible for, and the singular cause of, our success – forgetting the thousands of people and endless links in the chain of our life story that have shaped our lives and outcomes.

We are a player in the game of our life, but we are only one cast member in this play. Many of the outcomes in our life are dumb luck in spite of ourselves, a luck that can change in an unforeseen instant. A luck that often does change, usually when we least expect it.

So the golden boy, whose simple touch seemingly turned everything to gold, goes bankrupt. The gambler’s luck vanishes at the table. The movie star no longer receives the scripts begging for her attention. The spiritual leader falls from grace when discovered to be a mere mortal. The Big Man On Campus is caught doing drugs. How far the mighty can fall. How many people we stepped on as we traveled on our way up still wave to us as we pass them on our journey back down?

Failure is painful. It is not something to strive for. But it is often the Universe’s needed course correction for us in our life journey. A necessary shattering of the illusions we have wrapped ourselves in. A gift of proper perspective when our view has lost its clarity. A reminder of fragility where we had come to believe in the false protector of permanence. A refresher course in proper relationships. A teaching experience about what we failed to learn along our way, or a truth we forgot to consider when it was most needed.

Failure will come to us at some point. It is an inevitable (and often necessary) part of living a human life. So we best not spend too much time trying to deny it when it comes. Better to embrace it fully. What we choose to do at that point of failure, how we handle it, what we take from it, what lessons we learn, are all important. We need not fear failure; we need not strive for success simply to avoid failure. God uses moments of failure for our benefit. Can we do the same in those moments? Therein lies our true success.

©   2016   Randy Bell