As I drove my car yesterday afternoon I caught the tail-end of an NPR story about Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb. Apparently Edison failed almost 1000 times before he finally succeeded at his invention. Imagine it, 999 attempts, almost a thousand miserable failures over an extended period of time; and it was only in the 1000th attempt that he finally got the bulb to work - the rest is history.
The story I listened to yesterday reported that, soon after the success of the light bulb was revealed to the general pubic, a French reporter asked him, “Mr. Edison, how did it feel to fail 999 times?” Edison replied, “Young man I have not failed 999 times, I have simply found 999 ways to create a light bulb.”
I thoroughly enjoyed that “Edison invention” story yesterday - what a great lesson for today’s culture that so highly prizes perfection, where “failure is not an option.”
If Thomas Edison had lived in our own times he would have probably been fired from his job after a month of two of his astounding inability to “produce” – there is no place in this world for anyone who constantly makes mistakes.
As I drove home yesterday I thought about all the people at home or work or school, all trying to succeed –working at being that perfect mom, perfect spouse, perfect employee or perfect student, trying to achieve that perfect flawless “Hollywood” look, the perfect smile and designer clothes – and yet everyone also realizing that they are far from perfect, often making mistakes, missing the mark, living lives that are flawed.
Each and every one of us is in fact, to some degree, “a failure.” And in a culture where “failure is not an option,” when we find we have inevitably failed we often imagine that we have little choice but to hide our heads in shame and pretend to be a great success.
As I see it, this “glorification of perfection” is perhaps even more widely exacerbated when it comes to the spiritual life. Somehow whenever “God’ gets involved in the picture, failing and making mistakes is never on the menu. Many believe that “God” expects people to “always do the right thing,” obey all the commandments, follow the laws of the church or temple, and failing to do so is a sin that demands punishment.
Even for those less “religiously” inclined, spiritual pursuits are often viewed as a journey to perfection. Meditation, proper breathing without distraction- these are the demands of the spiritually disciplined, and failing to perform these disciplines properly is often seen as an embarrassing flaw.
I actually think that failure and making mistakes is innate to our human condition. In fact, for me, the great paradox of all life is that the way to be happy and fully alive is to recognize and embrace our inherent imperfection.
We all make mistakes, we all fail, none of us lives up to any sort of noble standard, whatever that standard may be. When we embrace our own mistakes and learn to live with and forgive our own failures and the failure of others, we find what it means to be a human being.
Priest and author Richard Rohr once observed;
We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.
The demand for the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good.
In today’s “failure is not an option” culture, I think people tend to be way too hard on themselves. Maybe this is a good day for each of us to give ourselves a break. We are all “imperfectly beautiful”- that’s how “God” made it all.
All those past 999 failures may actually have been 999 ways in which we have been learning how to create the light bulb of our lives.