The Disciple of Failure

The photograph header for this series on failure includes an icon I keep in my planner. It’s an icon of Thomas, the doubter of doubters, with his too-long fingers stuck in the side-wound of Christ.

“I won’t believe,” he said, “unless I feel the wounds.”

Faith? Nah. Give me the evidence, man.

Christ gave him that evidence; he appeared in the upper room and invited Failing-Faithed Thomas to touch his sticky wounds. Thomas’ did, and his response was simple and faithful–“My Lord and my God.” It was a moment of fresh faith that sprung from the recognition of his failure, his doubt. The failure of his faith served as a sort of floor, a foundation for the construction of something more sturdy.

Thomas’ failure was recorded in great detail in the Gospel of John and has survived these 2,000 years. (Thomas (or John, rather) showed us his work.) But the restoration that sprung from that failure was recorded, too. What’s more, church history teaches us that Thomas was, perhaps, the first missionary to the East, that he died his own martyr’s death for the faith. Could there be a more successful act of faith than dying a martyr’s death?

I keep the icon of Doubting Thomas in my journal as a reminder of sorts. I take it out from time to time, look at the kneeling, placid-faced man recollecting his faith, and I remember the lesson of his life. Failure is not fatal if you have the courage to see it for what it is–an opportunity for restoration.

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Algebraic Sexism and the Wisdom From Failure

Yesterday I identified the problem:

Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth:
Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

We see this self-helpism at work in the world around us, on Twitter, Facebook, the bookstore shelves (even in the Christian Living section of said bookstore). Success sells. Beauty sells. Self-actualization sells. Pristine spirituality sells. Here’s what doesn’t sell quite so well–failure. Isn’t failure a prerequisite to growth, though? And though I’ve spun a few thousand words about the more grandiose failures of my own life in Coming Cleanit’s not just the big failures that shape us, that modify our courses and help us grow. It’s the little ones, too.

In the tenth grade, my honors algebra teacher, Mrs. Cokely, was a stickler for details. During our second semester, she introduced a sort of algebraic equation that required something on the order of 342 steps to complete, and any misstep along the way produced a result on par with absurdity. There was, of course, a simple process by which the answer could be derived with the push of a few buttons on a $100.00 calculator. Mrs. Cokely, though, was intent on teaching us the steps of calculation. She confiscated our calculators, said they were contraband of the highest order and set us down the path of complexity with little more than a pencil and a ream of graph paper.

“You need to work the steps, suffer the failures, understand the why before I return your calculators,” she said. It was failure that produced true understanding, knowledge. This was her deepest belief.

As any good teacher should, Mrs. Cokely did not confine her wisdom to the realm of mathematics. During that same frustrating semester, my friend and cheerleader, Sydney, was delivering a note from the principal. She walked through the door, and brash as I was (unpolished, you might say), I might have whistled to get her attention. That whistle may have been mistaken by Mrs. Cokely for a cat call on account of the fact that it was (in fact) a cat call, and the mathematician with a penchant for rule-enforcement turned fire-engine red. When Sydney left the room, Cokely stood, rigid as a yardstick, silent as one, too, and she pointed to the hall.

In the hall, she backed me against the lockers with her bony pointer. “Do you know what sexual harassment is?” she asked. I hemmed and hawed some unsatisfactory non-answer. Mrs. Cokely laid down the law. “Sentences, Seth. You will write, ‘I will not sexually harass the cheerleaders,’ 300 times, or I will fail you.”

She’d identified my lack of character, my failure, and if I didn’t accept the punishment for that failure, she’d fail me again. Failure unrecognized leads to more failure. This is the lesson Mrs. Cokely hoped to teach me. The lesson stuck.

This is the truth about failure: it shows us the areas of our shortcomings, teaches where we’ve miscalculated or overstepped. It’s the recognition of that failure, whether in the miscalculation of algebraic equation or the acting out of macho sexism, that teaches us to refine our process, to correct our course. It’s the showing of our work, the outing of our own embarrassing histories of failure that gives us the credibility to share the wisdom of our personal growth in a more refrined way.

Words approximating wisdom but built on the flim-flam of feel good self-helpism are worthless. Wisdom gleaned from failure after failure after failure–there’s the gold. So, I’m making this request to the formula-peddling self-helpers (Christian and otherwise): Don’t just sell me your answers; show me your work.

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The Truth About Failure

We live in an era of bite-sized wisdom, of perpetual self-help, of too many mini-gurus. Yesterday, I cruised Twitter for less than thirty seconds, and in that thirty seconds, I found all the answers to life’s pressing problems. Allow me to recap.

Mini-Guru No. 1 shared how I might maximize my profit by working less and living more.

Mini-Guru No. 2 offered a pinnable platitude (a cliche, really) about who-knows-what-? by stringing together an embarrassing number of pseudo-Christian words that were meant to inspire my faith.

Mini-Guru No. 3 instructed me on the “6 Ways to Avoid Delayed Adulthood,” an article that was strong on motivation and short on substance.

This is the way of so much of our media these days–strong on motivation and short on substance.

(Let’s drop the pretense. I’m just calling it like I see it. Straight, no chaser.)

It’s a motivator’s market these days, and the market is always open. People have questions. These gurus have answers (or so they claim). Answers are marketable things.  But is it really as simple as the internet motivators say? Can I maximize profit without work? Can faith be inspired without substance? And how can any ill be cured in Six Simple Steps (Patent Pending)? The question governing all of these questions was asked by my internet acquaintance Myles Werntz:

This brings me to the problem, a problem I’ll unpack a little more this week.

THE PROBLEM
Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth:
Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

Hope as you might, following cliche after cliche will not help you avoid the pain of failure. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual. Failure will happen. This isn’t a truth that sells well in the market, but that doesn’t make it less true. So, this week I hope to convince you to bypass so much of the guru-spun motivational gobbledygook of the day and to take an honest inventory of your failures.  I hope to convince you that this inventory of failures is where true growth starts. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual.

Where should we start, though? How about here: today, scroll through Twitter, Facebook, your favorite lifestyle magazine, and identify the mini-gurus, the people who’d give you easy answers to very complicated issues. What substance are they offering? Any?

 

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Nurturing Fragile Vows (On Marriage)

When you’re 22, what is marriage? What is a set of vows, a union, a sacrament? What is the cloud of souls witnessing your specific affirmation of monogamous love?

For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.

What is the honeymoon, the union, the sex? When you’re 22, what is any of it but an awkward entry into a commitment you’ll never understand, one that is wholly un-understandable? At 22, who can say what it means to be one? Who understands the fusion of souls?

No one.

This week, almost 18 years into my marriage, I caught wind of a divorce, and another, and another. Two were brought on by infidelity. (Who can blame a spouse for leaving a lover who’s taken another lover?) The other couple went Splitsville over Lord-only-knows-what, though it is said that one lover fell out of love with the other lover. (And yes, love dies on occasion, no matter what the Marriage Gurus tell you. (But know this: Every death is an occasion for resurrection.))

This is an excerpt from last week’s newsletter (sign up HERE to read the entire newsletter), and it was spurred by another round of divorce news. This is how the news of divorce comes–in rounds.

Every time the news of another spate of divorces reaches me, a dark cloud sets in, or maybe my brain feels as if it’s melting into existential goo, or perhaps the world seems to spin backward. I’m not really sure how to put it, exactly, but the point is this: news of divorce makes everything feel so broken; it makes me ask too many questions.

What makes my marriage any different?

Is my love impervious?

Do I think I’m any better than Mr. X or Mrs. Y who couldn’t seem to muster up enough stick-with-it?

What is marriage stick-with-it, anyway?

Existential marriage questions are worse than existential death questions, which is saying quite a lot coming from an Enneagram 5 with a 4 wing who lives his life squarely in life’s existential gap. (This is a thing worse than melancholy, I assure you.)

Who knows all the ways the thread of a marriage can be pulled, the ways it can be unwound? I’m not sure anyone does. What’s more, I refuse to explore the multiplicity of ways, because my tolerance for angst and paranoia only stretches so far on a beautiful Ozarkan summer day. But somehow, the simple awareness that marriages are akin to loose-threaded scarves (vows subject to being pulled apart) keeps me attuned to my own pulling penchants, the ways I could unwind everything with a few bad decisions. That attunement–it reminds me that marriages are things to be nurtured, to be repaired when necessary.

I’m inviting you to tune into the fragility of your own vows today, and in that attunement, to consider the ways you might nurture or repair your own union. And for those who lack creativity, perhaps I could offer a few suggestions:

-Confess that thing that’s been eating you up and ask for forgiveness;

-Schedule a date;

-Buy your spouse a bouquet of flowers;

-Schedule an appointment with a marriage therapist;

-Write some new vows (consider these by Tim Willard);

-Have a good bedroom romp. (Yes, I wrote that.)

Nurture, repair, nurture, repair–this is the way to cultivate a healthy marriage, I think (though I’m no Marriage Guru). Isn’t this the thing you want more than anything? Isn’t it worth the effort?

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My Repentance

It was not just any Sunday night. It was the Sunday after the verdict was read in the Philando Castile case, a case in which another black man was killed by a police officer with an itchy trigger finger.

Not Guilty. 

The facts were the facts, and who am I to recount them here. (Follow this link for proper reporting on the trial of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Castile.) But facts being what they were, reporting being what it was, many were left asking these questions:

What is justice anymore?

What has it ever been?

It was that Sunday night, and my predominately white, middle-class church gathered under a roof that was not opulent but was (sure-as-shooting) adorned with middle-class comforts. There, we prayed the responsive Prayers of the People together, and after the rote prayers, the officiant held the floor open for extemporaneous petitions. Prayers may be offered silently, the bulletin read, but a woman on the front row chose an alternative path to heaven. In that space, she broke open, wept over the violence in our country, over the lack of justice for so many image-bearers of God. She broke wide for Philando Castile. She broke wide for the people in her life who’d never known justice, who never would, at least not the justice so many of us take for granted. She broke and broke and broke, sobbing at the altar. When she finished, there was a holy pause. A hush, even if just for a few moments. I listened to that hush, heard the sobs of Christ there, too.

It was one of those moments that punched me in my pearly whites. It reminded me that prayer is sometimes the ultimate expression of sorrow and that if my prayers do not express that kind of sorrow, perhaps I’ve bartered my humanity away. Maybe I’ve traded it for comfort. Perhaps I’ve become something less that the Christ of the scriptures.

It was one of those altar moments I’ll not soon forget. It was a call to personal repentance.

 

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