Richard Rohr is one of my favorite authors, because he has a way of saying the things that are actually true, but with no platitudes. Here are two quotes that resonate with me, both from his great book Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
“We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”
“Most often we don’t pay attention to that inner task until we have had some kind of fall or failure in our outer tasks.”
Let me be clear: I hate to fail. I try very hard not to fail, and when I have failed, I work hard to pretend that I haven’t. I tend to try to rearrange my failure, like covering up a stain on the rug with your couch, even though it’s now in the middle of the room and makes no sense, even to you.
We treat failure as if it’s a deadly virus that will kill us, when actually, it is a great gift that can set us free.
A few weeks ago, our family was at the Science Museum, standing in line for tickets. My son Elijah was acting goofy and a little defiant, insisting on running outside of the line, no matter how many times we told him to stop, to listen, to stay in line. If you are a parent, you can feel the frustration that I was feeling, knowing that there really isn’t any good reason that he should be listening to you right then, other than you’re the parent, and you’re getting louder and louder, and more and more mad, and looking more and more ridiculous to all of the people in line with you.
At the height of my frustration, he flopped down boneless, on the floor, and wouldn’t get up. So I reached down and grabbed him, forcibly pulling him up into my arms. He immediately started crying, and it wasn’t the angry cry of a child who just wants his way, it was the surprised cry of someone who has been hurt.
I felt awful. I immediately knew that I had been too rough.
So I held him close, and I told him, “Elijah, daddy was too rough. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” I held him that way for a few minutes, and when he seemed to be fine, I put him down and we went into the Science Museum, and he was soon laughing and scampering among the dinosaurs.
That stayed with me for the rest of the day. It was hard to shake. As a parent, I had failed in that moment to use my strength to be loving, and I had given in to my frustration.
Here’s what a failure like that can teach us:
1. Failure can teach to to connect with others by saying you’re sorry. When you know you’ve failed, you need to find a way to apologize, because most of the time, we have failed a person.
2. Failure can teach you to ask for what you need. When your head has cleared, you need to find a way to see if there is something you need that you’re not getting. I noticed my level of frustration was higher than it should be, which means that I’m either not getting enough alone time, or not dealing with some other issue that is stressing me out.
3. Failure can teach you to be kind to yourself, and let yourself off the hook (and others, too). This is not the last time you will fail. Though there are consequences to failing, and sometimes they’re severe, when you learn to see yourself as bigger than your failures, you become more kind to yourself, and to others. This makes you a much bigger person, able to give and receive love more freely. All throughout the Scriptures, God is overwhelmingly kind to those who see their failures, who admit them, and who bring them into the light of day.
I’m convinced that the great heroes in life are not flawless. They’re people who refuse to cover their failures. Instead, they stop. They admit it. They see what they can learn from it.
And like a helium balloon that is released into the air, they learn to let those failures go, and move on to the next moment, filled with possibility and potential and hope.