Thursday, September 26, 2013

Embracing Failure

a dead tree among flowering bushes
-along the wilderness trail-

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, "Losing is Good for You," offered the following piece of advice to parents whose children are signing up for "back-to school" sports' programs:

Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: "Which kids get awards?" If the answer is "Everybody gets a trophy," find another program.

The article goes on to report recent research suggesting that, when everybody gets a trophy -when the message is always about how "talented and smart a child is," kids will inevitably "collapse at the first experience of difficulty and, demoralized by their failure, say they'd rather cheat than risk failing again."

I think there is an important message here, not just for school children and parents, but for us all.

Many years ago everyone was reading a very popular bestselling "self help" book titled,"Im Ok, You're Ok." The book was all about building up self-eseteem - its underlying premise was that everyone is smart and talented and we should do everything we can to praise and celebrate the gifts in our own self and in others.  At the time I thought it was a pretty good book. I have come to think it may be one of he worst books I have ever read - its premise potentially quite harmful.

Like any popular theory, there is a kernel of truth about the importance of building up "self-esteem." Generally speaking, it's probably a good thing to honor and celebrate our own and one another's gifts.

But there is also an inherent psychological as well as spiritual danger inherent in all this business about everyone always being "ok". The fact is that sometimes, "Im not ok and sometimes you're not ok." We all make mistakes. We all fail. This is what it means to be a human being.  And if we don't recognize this truth, we shall indeed "collapse" when failure comes our way.

As I see it, the inability to embrace or recognize failure and flaws has deep spiritual consequences. The belief that "I" can do no wrong" is a pure act of the ego, and inevitably leads to arrogance and pride. If I can do no wrong, "I" don't need to depend on or be connected to anyone other than my "self" - not even God.

The related corollary is that, since we all do fail and because we are all flawed, when "I" do inevitably fail and when I ultimately do make mistakes, I feel a need to defend and draw into my own "ego" to protect my pride. I hide my (inevitable) failure from myself and from others because I don't want others  to think less of me (maybe I don't even want God to think less of me).  I shrink from and hide my failure in order to preserve my "self esteem".

I think this self-esteem business in way over-rated in our culture today. I also think it can be dangerous for our mental and spiritual health.

I sometimes hear people talk about "learning from your mistakes. "This is often translated as "yes, we make mistakes, but when you fail, correct what you did wrong, learn from it so you can then move on to be that perfect flawless person you are meant to be".   The idea of "learning from your mistakes" (understood in this way) is yet another technique for building up a bloated self-sufficient ego.

I say instead:  embrace your flaws, embrace your mistakes, embrace failure.

When "I" fail (not if I fail), I recognize that I am not perfect, I am flawed, I make mistakes. I am not always OK and you aren't either. I am a human being.

Failure provides me an opportunity for reaching out to others, seeking help, asking forgiveness.  Failure provides an opportunity for grace.

It's true, you know,  sometimes losing is good for you. 


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