THERE ARE some Saturdays when I recognize that what I write is more relevant for some than for others. But today, when I write about failure, I suspect I include us all.
There may be some brave Apollo who can't recall many failures, but I doubt if any of us would make that claim. Since failure is the common lot of us all, we need to see it in proper perspective, see its pitfalls and possibilities, see how we can wrest from it some positive good and keep it from overpowering and defeating us.
The story of history is, in large measure, the story of men and women who have overcome great odds, surmounted failures and made a significant contribution to life even in the presence of defeat. They have been able to turn a minus into a plus and to find success even in the presence of failure.
I think of the spindly-legged baseball player who struck out 1,330 times. But what we remember about Babe Ruth is his record of 714 home runs.
Cy Young, perhaps the greatest baseball pitcher of all time, accumulated 511 victories, a mark that has never been threatened, but what is often forgotten is that Young lost almost as many games as he won.
One of the "failingest" men who ever lived was always trying experiments which were unsuccessful. Yet we never think of Thomas Edison as a failure. It has been written that "failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor."
Failure per se, of course, is not necessarily good. It can crush our spirits and give us feelings of defeat and inferiority. There are some common-sense things to remember if we are not to have so many failures that we are constantly discouraged.
One could be: Don't set the immediate goal too high. Many people suffer undue anguish or self-recrimination because they have expectations that are too great and make greater demands on themselves for a goal that cannot be recognized so early in the game.
Someone should write a thesis that debunks proverbs that have destroyed human happiness and created more frustration than do any of the many ills that plague humankind. "Hitch your wagon to a star" would be a good one with which to begin, or perhaps "One's aim should exceed one's grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
Those two may take the prize for psychologically defeating proverbs. There should be at least possibilities for aiming at something we will be able, eventually, to grasp. (And everyone knows heaven isn't something we earn - it's a gift which we receive by the grace of God.) Stars or treetops?
It may be true that if we aim at the stars, we may hit the treetops. I suppose that's all right, provided we never had any expectation of reaching the stars, but I wonder how many people have been lured by these monitions, only to suffer constant frustration and failure?
We should direct our wagon toward a plateau a little above and beyond us, one we can conceivably reach with work, determination and perseverance. Then, having reached that plateau and savoring the fruits of attaining our goal, direct our wagon to a higher plateau.
We live in a highly competitive world. It is sometimes difficult to assess for ourselves just what our goals really are, what they should be (given all the circumstances involved), whether or not we have (personally) ever actually consciously formed goals, and where we now are - on what plateau.
All of my ministry has been in a university community, and I have seen the quandary of trying to assess goals demonstrated in some students who came from small high schools to a large university. In high school, they had been president of many organizations, first in their class, a captain or star in every sport, but unable to do the same at the university in the presence of stronger competition.
They have therefore imagined themselves a failure when such was not the case. They are actually probably at a point where they might be headed toward a new plateau and redefinition of their goals. "None good but God"
When Jesus said, "Be ye therefore perfect," he did not intend to destroy incentive by setting up an impossible ideal. He never meant that a person could be without a flaw. Jesus did not think of himself as perfect. "Good Master," said one, and Jesus responded by saying, "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but God."
In the light of this answer, I cannot believe that when he said, "Be ye therefore perfect" (as appears in the Book of Matthew) he expected his followers to be flawless (that is "perfect") but that they be loving, honest, upright, sincere and aspiring.
It is interesting that the word "perfect" is translated "merciful" in the parallel passage in the Book of Luke.
One failure doesn't mean we lose the race of life any more than losing a battle meant the loss of a war. One slip doesn't mean we are forever a sinner any more than one good deed makes us forever a saint.
Flunking one course doesn't make a student a poor scholar. If a marriage does not work out, it doesn't mean the sky has fallen. These so-called failures can be opportunities for self-discovery.
Many positive values can evolve out of failure. It can have a mellowing effect on our lives. We can think of nothing much worse than having to live with a person who has never failed. What an unmitigated bore and tyrant that person would be. What unreasonable demands he or she would make on others. To know a few failures can help to make a person fit to live with.
Real success in life does not consist of the actual accomplishment of everything we set out to do. The quality of mind and spirit developed in tackling these tasks, especially during barren moments of failure and disappointment, is the important thing. It is better to fail at doing something than to succeed in doing nothing.