We are not good at failure. We spend the first quarter of our lives in training to become winners in a world that rejects losers, learning how we can become successful, happy and wealthy beyond our wildest dreams by age twenty-five. We are taught to conquer whatever stands in our way and we generally spend the next portion of our lives trying to overcome hurdles, barriers, chasms, weaknesses, troublesome relationships or disadvantaged situations, scaling the great opportunities of the world with our bare hands. We define our self worth by categories such as successful, moderately successful, unsuccessful or apathetic. We invest in leaders who can guarantee success over and against all the odds, the promise of Trumping failure is a lure we cannot resist. But at some point along the way, though we seek to avoid it at all costs, we often experience a great fall from whatever heights of success we may have achieved, and this fall is known collectively in the modern world as failure. Failure, though we are not very good at accepting it, is, in fact, an inevitable consequence of living.
We do not want to be told while we are wallowing in the misery of our failure that failure is our greatest teacher. But it’s true. We want to hurriedly get back on our feet and be successful again as quickly as possible, because that is what feels good and proves to the world that we are valuable, worthy and can be trusted with responsibility. But what if we shifted our goal? What if we chose to celebrate our failures as much as our successes?
The story goes that whenever a patient of depth psychologist, C.G. Jung would report, after much treatment, a massive failure or break down, he would proclaim, “wonderful, let’s have a glass of wine and celebrate!” Failure was a cause for celebration, in his opinion, because he believed that breakdowns often precipitate breakthroughs. The great mission of human life, he concluded, was not necessarily success, though throughout the course of one’s life, there will be great successes and great failures, but the goal was being fully present on the journey of one’s individuation; coming to the realization that the mission of life is not defined by successes or failures, but by the ability to give birth to one’s very own soul. Success and failure are just methods through which we become. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says, “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Ancient religions view this as the core experience of a faithful life, becoming awakened to the spiritual journey within, as Jesus told his followers a long time ago, the kingdom of heaven is within, it lives in the heart. This journey of the soul’s life takes us beyond the paradigm of opposites such as success and failure, or winning and losing into a third way, the way of transcendence, of resurrection, of peace in the midst of struggle, joy in the center of chaos.
Living with the awareness that we are connected to a greater source of life that cannot fail, at last, because it is not defined by failure or success, is what it means to thrive. To live out of the awareness that we are connected to what is greater than us, creation itself. Creation does not fail, it recycles itself in ever renewed forms. Within us is a presence, a spirit, a created thing, as one of the Christian confessions states, created not made. Human life is part of the created world, and though our physical bodies will change, this spirit within remains connected to what is eternal being, world without end. In the Christian tradition we call it soul, our connection to the eternal. Once we become aware of our soul’s life in the world, we understand that we, in the very essence of who we are, simply cannot fail. It is the false self, not the true self, that convinces us otherwise. Once we encounter the true self, we begin to live out of the source of all being.
Often, becoming who we are created to be involves failing at who we thought we were. The spiritual life in us will continue to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) try and get our attention to point us to a greater path, the story written upon the walls of our souls. Often this happens through failure. The path of one’s true life in the world does not promise success as we may conceive of it in our day and age, but wholeness.
A wise old man once told me that people do not fail, systems fail, people are not systems. He went on to say, “the Israelites roamed in the wilderness for forty years, did you ever notice that the story says Moses led them in a circular path? You see, they weren’t quite ready for their freedom.”
Sometimes it takes a very long time and many circular paths before we come to a place where we are at peace with failure. But when we get there, we realize we have entered the domain of joy. What failures can you celebrate today?