Posted: June 2, 2010 in difficulty
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We deal with failure differently.

Some failures we laugh off.  An older lady told me yesterday. “I was trying to read in a group recently, and I couldn’t seem to read the page I was on, then I figured out I had my glasses on upside down!”   We both laughed.

Some failures can’t be laughed off.  A person told me with great pain recently, “I never thought I’d be divorced.” No humor in this moment.

It’s interesting how we process failure. There is actually controversy about this. Some people take an aggressive, positive approach. They fight against things; they pray against things; they refuse to accept defeat. They may say things like, “There aren’t any failures; there are only learning experiences.” They give examples of those who have been healed, who have risen above loss, who have made a come back, who have reinvented themselves. They are believers in power. They speak of post-traumatic growth.  

This response has value in that it is positive, it sometimes wins the day, it works well to motivate reform; it preserves self-esteem; it uses failure as nuclear fuel to energize a  new  future. At its best it is a plucky, hopeful, can-do approach to life. At its worst it is an arrogant triumphalism, fostering a sense of superiority and the over-expectation of ultimate triumph.

Some, on the other hand, take a more accepting, honest-about-loss, humanized approach. They say things like, “It’s important to face the reality of loss. To do that we need to grieve. We need to feel.”  This approach embraces loss and failure as deep learning experiences  that help us gentlize, become more human, more relational. The interest isn’t in winning something, defeating something or healing something.  The response isn’t interested in becoming a dynamo of success fueled by a devastated past.

The interest is in becoming an authentic person, an emotionally intelligent person, a more aware person. This person leans into failure, learns to listen to the rumblings within. This perspective is good in that it clearly identifies a legitimate failure. It often leads to appropriate expressions of grief, to deeper empathy, even perhaps to a few much-needed apologies. It is good; it is emotionally healthy, but taken too far it may become defeatist, overly emotional, giving up on reversing declines, not tapping into the power to heal or reform, not pushing ahead and winning victories that could yet be won.

To see these approaches in action, consider how persons with these two perspectives might respond to terminal illness. The upside-of-life, assertive, go-for-it person says, “We can still beat this,” or prays, “God, we ask you to heal this.” But the more emotionally focused, reality-accepting person might say at a death bed, “It is time to let her go. We have to now accept this.” And then this person prays, “God, comfort us as we grieve this.”  It’s problematic spiritually; both responses can be seen as spiritual. To look to God for healing shows great faith, but to accept reality when it isn’t what you want also shows great faith. 

Such responses are a choice in each situation of life, and we many of us probably go back and forth between these. But some of us have one of these two reactions as a default setting. We tend toward either a triumphalist or a more humanize response to failure and loss. Where this is true this may become problematic for us. Being stuck in one kind of response to every situation many keep us from bringing wisdom to the subtlety and complication of life.

For example, being overly optimistic in some situations can stifle legitimate grief. It can also sabotage a needed apology. It can also run over the top of other people involved in the same incident who need time to process and recover. A downright Pollyannaish outlook can even deny reality.

But being overly “in touch” with emotions, and the past and human frailty also has a downside. Self-confidence can be destroyed if in a time of failure as a person turns upon themselves too much, wallowing in feelings, perhaps over-analyzing themselves for what they think they did wrong.  Too much introspection can stifle action, prevent us from going on, keep us from believing that with God’s help situations can be reversed, dramatically changed, people healed.

What to do?

Do both. Engage in both the “I’m looking forward” and the “I’m looking inward” approaches. Reality is complex; so must our responses be, nuanced, intricate, bi-functional.

True, we must move beyond failure, but we while doing so we must not deny the losses in the past. It is good to see the best in things, but not to deny the worst. Praying for healing is good. And when it doesn’t happen it is also good to accept that God had something else in mind.

In short, to be wise we must be human, and more than that.

In failure, we must  grieve and then move on and finally know when to do one and then the other.

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