Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Tuesdays in the Chapel
October19, 2010

From The Good Life, by Peter Gomes

For most people, the time of failure is the most important time of testing in their lives. Margaret Thatcher once said that “Failure is not an option,” by which she meant to imply the inevitability of success, but the truth of the statement transcends even her own meaning: we do not willing choose failure, but our moments of testing and maturity will be determined by how we choose to deal with the failures that are inevitable. We might say that where there is failure, there is life; and it is failure in life, as in science, that will help us to redefine what success is, and what success can be.


Jno. 13:5 “For I have set you an example, you should do as I have done for you.”
Matt. 23:11 “The greatest among you will be your servant.”

Our words today are about failure. How do we integrate failure into our lives if we wish to be whole? I think immediately of Brooks Conrad, the infielder for the Atlanta Braves who committed three errors in a game against the San Francisco Giants and cost his team the game. He will be remembered for his failure and more significantly he will have to remember what happened.

The topic is not an easy one and one not dealt with explicitly in the Christian tradition as I knew it growing up. “If at first you do not succeed, try, try again.” is not found in the Bible. It is a maxim from the early 19th century used to encourage students to do their homework.

And the difficulty is that there are failures and there are failures. When you fail to jump from one flat roof to another in an urban setting you have a failure that you may not get another chance to redeem. When you fail to be on time picking up your children at the movies you may hear about it for the rest of their lives, but you will not lose your children. You just keep apologizing. When you fail to do a problem on a P-set you learn to do it right and you can.

So failure may or may not be terminal And you can learn something about yourself when you fail. “You are what experience makes you.” says Brian Wilson the reliever for the San Francisco Giants comment on the experience of watching doctors fail to cure his father’s cancer when he was was 17. That is also the message from J.K. Rowling.

But there is a more fundamental problem with failure. It is un-American. Our job is to make things happen not live with the incomplete and flawed. There is as well another notion that runs through our religious traditions: the notion that we are called to serve. And service is for many of us just another way of making peace with not being the best. There is a little book that has influenced many and shows up in surprising places called Teacher as Servant: a Parable by Robert Greenleaf. Early in the account, the protagonist tells the reader, and the Housemaster of the dormitory where he wishes to live, that the notion of being a servant bothers him and the Housemaster, a physics prof, tells him that the key to understanding what it means to be a servant has to do with doing things without being concerned with getting credit. Being a servant does not mean not accomplishing anything or being second rate, but simply not worrying about who gets the credit for what is done.

To serve is not to fail or to settle for second best, but rather to enable to process of doing to continue without putting ourselves front and center. It is a challenging task but one made easier by remembering the text from the teachings of Jesus. We are called to serve the common good. We are called to serve our university, our community, our family, our work and this remains true no matter where we are or what our vocation is.

This is a difficult notion to get our minds around. It is easier seen in how Christina does the jobs I ask her to do. She can say to me, you asked me to do such and such and I have done it. But each week she also pursues her work as a vocalist in a variety of venues where the measurements of success and failure are less clearly defined and often she serves others by not so quietly helping them be better than otherwise they might be. Often she shines and draws attention to her own work, but not always and often her own standards are higher than the audience’s standards.

In our efforts to be whole, we will be better for thinking through this difficult topic.
How do I manage the inability to not do something or simply not do it to my own measure of success?
Does my willingness to fail make me more compassionate when working with others who are learning what they cannot do?
Do I measure success by the attention it brings me or by the work that is done regardless of who gets the credit?
Brian Wilson is right: we are what our experience makes us, but we also hear the voices of our teachers the examples they leave us.

Closing Reading

J.K. Rowling
Harvard Commencement
June 5, 2008

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute