Adam Savage, of MythBusters fame, is fond of the phrase “Failure is always an option.” Though his TV show occupies an inordinate amount of space on our home DVR, I only became conscious of the expression when a prospective student showed up for FOCUS a few years back displaying the sentence on his T-shirt. (If that was you: “Thanks!”)
I think about failure a lot, not just my own, but those of the people who come to me in times of failure or in fear of impending failure. When I think about failure I’m curious about failure’s relationship to our concepts of sin, our experience of shame and to what we mean when we talk about “brokenness,” either ours or creation’s. And with Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent now a week away, I’m thinking about sin and grace and mortality.
Failure is only a sin if success is our god.
I find this to be a provocative thought and a good place to start. Several years ago, a wise theologian suggested that our gravest fears are a lens through which we will see our most beloved idols. Thus, if I’m gravely afraid of failure then my idol of choice is success.
I bring this up because I’m frequently running into individuals – typically high-achieving students – who express a mortal fear of failure. Sometimes they go on to describe their life strategies for avoiding failure (and thereby ensuring success) as including steering well-clear of risks that seem to represent a high likelihood of failure. The reasoning is nearly bullet-proof. Yet, it comes with an acknowledgment that there are profound opportunity costs charged against us when we are fearfully successful. Success can be a ruthless idol, demanding that we surrender all – even the chance of growth that a new experience will provide.
Ironically, those who are familiar with failure tell us that the lessons learned in the wake of failure are critical to future success. In a list strikingly similar to the kind that St. Paul makes, failure is said to produce character, an awareness of one’s own fallibility, the need for one to seek help and the discovery that failure isn’t necessarily fatal. We can fail and get up and move on. Savage declares that he doesn’t trust people who claim to have never failed. “They’re the kind who will, at some point, throw you under the bus.”
So, failure is a set back, a discovery of limits and a learning opportunity. These are all good things. So perhaps failure is unrelated to sin or our experience of sin, at least sin before a real God.
Yet, failure feels a little like dying. Sometimes it feels a lot like dying. Why is that?
The third chapter of Genesis shares the account commonly called the “fall into sin.”
Despite the name, the sin is not intended as a descent. We usually think of moral failures as a kind of sinking down into something below ourselves. Commentators note that sin in which Adam and Eve are party is not one of seeking to degrade themselves into being less than they are. Their sad path is not into some sort of brutish animal-like behavior. Rather, it’s toward some aspirational goal. They long for a status like that of God. They long to know (and be capable of) both ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ The serpent’s temptation is toward a higher aesthetic, sensual and intellectual good. Ironically, the fall into sin takes place in a context of human beings reaching toward a higher state.
I realize that our first parents, before the fall, are thought to have lived in a sort of state of perfection, but I wonder if the perfection that they knew had more to do with the relationships that they enjoyed rather than their intellectual prowess?
So, now, as I write this, I’m wondering if the relationship between sin and failure lies in our perceived need to be free of failure in order to find joy, value and honor in this life. I wonder if our fear of failure is born out of the need to maintain the illusion that we are greater than we are, that we are like God, while we are adept at both good things and evil things.
This is what I’m thinking about and it’s probably what will be filling my head as I, along with Pastor Char, offer “ashes on the go” across campus next week on Ash Wednesday. We’ll be at the Community Room (11:20 a.m. to noon), the Union cafeteria (noon to 12:30 p.m.), and the ARC lobby (2:30 to 3:30 p.m.). You’ll also be able to receive the ashes and Holy Communion at the Chapel at 7 a.m., 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.
We’ll be reminding you that “you are dust and to dust you shall return” and we’ll be offering to mark you with the sign of the cross, the sign of your salvation, on your forehead. It will be, for you, a sign of freedom. Perhaps it will be a sign of freedom to fail.
Of course, I could have this analysis all wrong. (Perhaps this is all just a myth…bust it at your leisure…bust it at will.)
Feb. 22, 2017
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection.