Imagine sitting in a classroom and being told at the beginning of the term that everyone in the class will fail. There would probably be a dash to the registrar’s office in order to drop the class. But, imagine again, that dropping the class is not an option. You are going to take the class and you are going to fail. Will you listen to the lectures? Will you bother to show up for class? Will you study for the tests?
No one wants to fail. The knowledge of coming failure is likely sufficient information to make most people write-off the entire experience. If you’re going to fail, why bother? Oddly, if the same class began with the announcement that everybody in the class is going to receive an ‘A,’ would the outcome be much different? If you knew the ‘A’ was guaranteed, would you bother to attend, to listen, to study?
The tragedies in these scenarios are that the single goal of the class, the only possible reason for attending, is missed. The reason is gaining the knowledge that is being offered. The failing grade or the ‘A’ only exist to nurture that single goal in the minds of students.
Life is not a classroom, but the heart of a classroom is often formed and shaped in us from an early age. We live for the grade (one way or another). Nobody likes to fail. We do not always live for the knowledge.
The comedian, Don Novello (Fr. Guido Sarducci), had a routine in which he offered a “five-minute university.” It was a five-minute summary of everything you’d remember from college five years later. “Economics: Supply and Demand,” and so on. Some 40-odd years removed from college, I can say that he nailed it. I remember the phrase, “quadratic formula.” Now I wouldn’t know one if I saw it. But I loved every ‘A’ I ever received. I even have a few awards that I received for those stellar achievements.
I think failure is far more important than success. Not everybody succeeds. Failure is the true universal experience. Learning to deal with failure is certainly among the most important skills in life. It is also essential for being a Christian.
The general experience of failure is that it is accompanied by shame. When we fail, we feel that we have not only fallen short by some external measure but have fallen short as a person. We feel diminished and of less worth. For some, this experience has been internalized to such an extent as to be their default self-perception. That’s the voice of toxic shame.
The dialog between Christ and the Tempter is worth considering. “If you are the Son of God, then…” The subtle message is that “you’re not really the Son of God.” Shame had worked in the Garden. There, the Tempter said to Eve:
“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Here, the message is that God does not want us to be like Him. We are not who we thought we were. That shaming word caused a doubt, and then a sin. Christ rebuffs the Tempter, letting the shame pass Him by as He stood in the Scriptures. We are who God says we are, not what our failures would seek to make of us.
We are a culture of measurements. We imagine that if something (or someone) can be measured, it can be quantified and improved. Efficiency, productivity, and usefulness become existential categories as though our lives were beans for the counting. My first year out of seminary, I served as a Deacon in a parish with a priest who had interesting ideas. One of those was that all clergy are lazy. He set a requirement that I was to keep a precise record of everything I did, every phone call, every visit, etc. I gave a report to the Vestry every month. I was to work six days a week. It was a regime that haunted me for a number of years, a message of shame that is the stuff of clergy burnout. That year I rescued him from a suicide attempt (long story). This stuff is deadly.
There is a fear that if we do not fear failure, we will never succeed. It is the same mentality that imagines the gospel to only be successful if it is backed by the threat of hell. It is, I think, the voice of shame and shaming. My experience is that when the world is seen through this lens, success itself brings no satisfaction. It is always haunted by the possibility of failure that waits around the corner.
St. Paul said that he would “boast of his ‘weaknesses,’” noting that, “in my weakness His strength is made complete.” Many times the strength of God is made complete simply as we sit in His presence and acknowledge our failure. This acknowledgement is bearable when we allow our failure to be captured and swallowed by His strength.
The success messaging that permeates our culture is, strangely, shame-producing. We offer “positive” reinforcements for children, but often presume that confronting failure will simply overwhelm them, leaving them unprepared for what inevitably lies ahead. To have a healthy “self-image” is best nurtured with a confidence in the love and acceptance that surrounds us rather than a constant bath of affirmative pep-talks. Failure should not be a cause for shame.
Our culture has taken much of its inner meaning from the market-place. That there is a Christian movement described as preaching the “Prosperity Gospel” is not odd. What is odd is that American Christianity has ever been described as doing much else. Joel Osteen’s great heresy is saying out loud what so many others imply with better taste. Many of the events surrounding the Second Great Awakening in America were sponsored by local businessmen. A godly, sober workforce was always to be preferred. Moral people make better workers.
Ancient Christianity caused something of a crisis in Rome when monasticism suddenly burst on the scene. The children of the rich were renouncing their wealth and power at such a rate that it was feared the empire would be wanting in leadership. American Christianity has never had a crisis of wealth and power. The virtues of the marketplace and the virtues of the faith have become synonymous.
As the Christian faith was settling into the “success” of being ancient Rome’s state religion, monasticism was populating the surrounding countryside. It was an abiding rebuke of the new order, and probably the great saving force within the new Christian polity. There has really not been a movement within the past several hundred years that offered a check on the modern Christian love-affair with success. It has largely been transfigured into the American pantheon of sports-heroes, actors, and politicians. We have become important. Along with the American mythos, we can claim to have “changed the world.” But that transformation has been little more than the export of American consumerism instead of the gospel of Christ.
Christ’s most serious warnings to His disciples were reserved for “mammon.” His words were absolute, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The gospel of success is the servant of mammon. Tragically, when we ask questions of how our nation is doing, the answer is to look at the stock market. The assumption is that money, lots of money, will solve all problems.
Of course, this creates something of a tension in our lives. People need money. This was true when Christ warned about mammon and it remains true today. It is generally the case in our faith that we do not condemn the things of the world, for they are blessed of God. But rightly using the things of the world is both the right path and the more difficult path.
Thus, it is not wrong to “succeed,” only we should beware of worldly success and the danger it presents to our souls. There is ever-so-much material in the tradition on how to live with such dangers. However, our uncritical acceptance of the culture-myths that surround modern success have left us deaf to the words of the gospel and the true good of our soul. If we listened carefully for that true good, we would have less fear of failure and greater confidence in God who called to Himself those who labor and are heavy-laden. His yoke is easy.