Failure Is a Part of Our Stories

“One learns more from failure than from any success.”

Typically those who say this are listened to and quoted because they are speaking from a position of success. People are listening to them because they are assuredly not failures, but those looked up to and respected.

I love irony. And this irony leaves me to take such assertions with a bit of puzzled curiosity.

I conclude that if one learns more from failure than success, then at age 54 I am due to receive my well-earned PhD. at any moment.

But this all begs the question of what passes as success and failure. Herman Melville (ever hear of him?) died in obscurity working for $4/day as a clerk at the New York Custom’s House. Success of failure? Jim Baker at the height of his ministry success couldn’t keep his pants zipped. Success or failure?

Success can be a hard thing to quantify, and yet we all know what it is. Pastors who are NOT pastoring large churches or whose churches are not growing are called ‘faithful’. In my experience, ‘faithful’ is Christian code for ‘struggling’ or ‘unsuccessful’. One rarely hears that platitude applied to those with large, bustling ministries, faithful though their pastors may be.

Such platitudes must be taken for what they are worth. We all have a pretty good idea in our minds what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in every field. Though one may learn more from failures, I know of no one craving such an education.

So it is with some interest that I read the literature of failure. I find strange comfort in the honesty which acknowledges that failure is a part of life. It is not a reflection on our character or our status. It is little more than an acknowledgement that we are indeed living.

To know the inevitability of failure is not to be defeatist. It is to acknowledge that in learning to walk every child first falls down, and of those who eventually do master the art, few will run 100 yards in 10 seconds. To know that the falling down and the hitting of limitations is okay and are a rightful part of life is to accept that failure comes to those who dream dreams.

The author of this piece, Lane Wallace, writes a great deal about ‘adventure’ – flying planes, climbing mountains, and the like. But she sees many parallels between the life of the adventurer and the life of the dreamer. The pursuit of dreams is by definition an adventure. It requires a vision, and an ability to change course, to back up, to redirect, to evaluate, and to plot a new course. It is always a risky thing. For those who dream, failure will be a part of our stories. And the simple reality of hearing that expressed does not make me long for success less, but it removes some of the fear of failure.

There is, of course, a gospel context for confronting failure – the knowledge that our acceptance before God is in spite of and unconnected with success or failure in our lives. I don’t discount that.

But I do take comfort in the reminder that failure happens. So, I’ve learned something yet again. Add it to my transcript.