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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