Friday, August 28, 2015

A Discipline of Failure

"Imperfectly Beautiful" 
- along a wilderness trail -

A recent article in the newspaper offered this very interesting and insightful piece of advice to parents across the country who are signing their kids up for "back-to school" programs and activities at this time of year:

Whether your kid loves Little League football or soccer, gymnastic or swimming,
always ask the program organizers this one question:
'Which kids get awards?'
If the answer is, 'everybody gets a trophy,'
find another program.

At first this may seem like an odd piece of advice, especially in an age where building a child's self-esteem" is so highly prized; and of course no child should ever be made to feel if he or she is discounted and has no value. On the other hand,  when everybody gets a trophy, nobody ever experiences failure and so when these kids do inevitably run into difficulty in life, they are unable to handle it.

The fact is that in real life we all need to fail in order to thrive. Learning how to negotiate your way through life is like learning how to ride a bike - you never find your balance unless you have fallen off it.

I am very fond of the wisdom contained in this one line from priest and author, Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward:

You learn how to recover from falling by falling.

This is never more true than when it is applied to the spiritual journey.

Like many if not most people I was always taught that the spiritual path is a "journey of perfection." God was often portrayed as the super-parent, the demanding "Father" who constantly expected right behavior and right thought in all I said and did. The rules were clear, there were commandants, laws and obligations, and I was expected to be an obedient son and do what I was told to do. When I made mistakes, disobeyed the rules and "fell into sin," I was a failure and a disappointment. 

Interestingly enough many people still continue to hold this attitude today, clinging to the belief that you need to be perfect to walk a spiritual path. This is why many religious people feel that they are "hypocrites" by professing to be religious or spiritual. They are well aware of their own flaws and acquainted with their demons and yet they place themselves in religious circles where "supposedly" only the angels dwell. 

As a matter of fact I know plenty of people who keep away from religion or avoid a spiritual path because they don't think they can "make the cut." They have too many sins, too many secret failures and hidden warts in their lives to dwell among the company of the "righteous" ones. 

But of course this idea of "spiritual perfection" is a myth - no human being is or is even capable of always being "perfect." Human beings are an interesting mix of shadows and light, beauty and beast. We sometimes are guided by our better angles, sometimes our darker sides- our angels and our demons always dwell side by side as we make our way on the path of life.

This makes me think of another line of Richard Rohr's bits of wisdom:

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong then by doing right.

The older I get, the more wisdom I find in this observation. 

When I recognize my failures when I see myself as being angry or judgmental, sometimes lazy or apathetic, and when I can embrace that part of me, I come to a knowledge that I am not a "cast-away" because of my faults - the all-embracing power of LOVE ("God") enfolds every part of me, the beauty as well as the beast. 

I also realize that when I sometimes fall off the spiritual bike, when I am selfish or cruel or perhaps too busy to feed my spiritual side with prayer or contemplation, I miss being on the bike. I can't learn to ride that bike unless I fall off it from time to time. I learn how to recover from falling by falling.

As I think about it, a healthy spiritual life necessarily embraces a discipline of failure. In fact, every human being needs to fail from time to time - maybe we give out too many trophies.