When I was in preschool, I was insanely jealous of the kids who were given speaking parts in the Christmas play. I actually “repeated” preschool because I was too young for kindergarten after year one, so I figured at least by the time I was a red-shirt preschooler, I’d get more props. No luck. First year, I was a silver bell. Second time around, I was a christmas present.
Then in first grade, I was given some lines in a play we were supposed to do for parents and other kids. It wasn’t a big thing; they were just setting it up in the gathering space between classrooms, arranged all around on the perimeter like a big “U.” But the closer we got to performance day, the more freaked out I got about it. My stomach started hurting so badly that my parents actually took me to get tested for appendicitis, and though I didn’t know what they were at the time, I’d have sudden panic attacks in the middle of class when I thought about performing.
Finally, we figured out my symptoms were related to stage fright, and I was relieved of my duties. And although I felt better in the short term, I’ve never forgotten that moment of failure. In a way, it has informed the rest of my life, considering that part of how I make a career for myself now is through public speaking. I was watching Rob Bell give a talk recently and what he had to say about failure really resonated with what I’d been feeling for some time, but hadn’t yet put into words.
I think we’re terrified of failures for the same reasons we’re scared of death, or any type of palpable ending, for that matter. Failure, at its heart, really is a small death. And who wants to go through that if they don’t have to? I’m not saying that we should set ourselves up intentionally to fail, but I get the sense that, more often than not, the fear of the possibility of failure keeps us from really living well. And really when you think about it, if you never fail, you may never figure out where your limits are. What a boring, uninspiring way to live.
So here are some reasons I’ve decided that failure isn’t just inevitable or necessary, but that it’s actually kind of wonderful:
Small deaths make way for new life. Bell talks about this in his lecture linked above, but it makes me think one of my favorite songs from the 90s by Semisonic. There’s one line that has never left me since the first time I heard it: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” We get so hung up on the resistance to the grief process, and to letting go of something even if its time has passed, that we put our fears on life support, dragging them along instead of giving them a proper burial so we can pour that energy into something new. What will that be? There’s one way to find out.
Failure is humbling. I’ve written before about the rampant, systemic narcissism in our culture, and I’m a perfect example of it. I mean, who is egotistical enough to believe the world needs to hear what we have to say, right? But often times, that need to be heard or noticed stems not from a place of substantive inspiration; it’s more about the act itself of being noticed. When children are asked what they want to be when they grow up now, the number one answer is “famous.” We custom-tailor our worlds to entertain us as we choose, and our information serves to further reinforce what we already believe in most cases. In that reality, failure is a necessary occasional antidote to an inflated sense of self that leads, at best, to the Kardashians and Jersey Shore, and at worst, the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colo., recently.
God loves failures. It’s not that I think God wishes failure upon us, but usually if you're failing, it means you’re taking risk. It also means that you’re probably pretty aware in that moment of your humanity, the fact that you’re not perfect, and perhaps in need of a little bit of grace sometimes. Trying and failing is fertile ground, but only if we take those opportunities to reflect, to grow and to admit that, despite our longings for the contrary, we’re just not perfect.
Failure itself can be inspiring. I don’t know about you, but when something is really hard, it makes me want to do it that much more, and if I’ve tried before and failed, the prospect of success is that much more compelling. That’s not to say that success for the sake of itself can’t turn into an ego-feeding but empty act. But you’ve got to admit that finally achieving something after trying and failing in the past is pretty sweet.
Failure bonds us together. If we took all of the stories of failure out of scripture, we wouldn’t have much of a Bible left. But what I love about so many of the failure stories in scripture is how they get molded into something that feels more real, something we can connect with on a deeper level. It helps me be more open to the teachings of Paul when I know he’s regularly plagued by habits or a past he just can’t shake. The fact that Peter turned his back on Jesus, and yet God still used him to grow what we know know as the church means that, just maybe, a screw-up like me has something to offer too.
But more important than personal inspiration, I think that others long to know of our failures, not so they can feel better about themselves (well, maybe sometimes), but because it helps assure us that we’re all real. If the Bible was only filled with stories of perfect people doing perfect things, I’d feel about it the way I feel about most TV preachers. Confessing failure is part of the process of growing intimacy. It’s a strange dynamic of human nature that we bond over common wounds, but it’s true. And Jesus knew something about this, if you think about how his ministry ended up.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."
Fail stamp, koya979 / Shutterstock.com