The gift of failure

I was dux of my year for four years in a row when in secondary school. In Years 11 and 12, I was not. I had failed.

It was devastating and humiliating.

Looking back, I recognise that I invested too much of my identity in being top of the year, but I didn’t understand that then.

It took time to figure it out. Comments like ‘Well, you can only do your best’ didn’t help. Secretly, I thought I must not have done my best.

Failure is a bitter experience.

It can also be a significant experience.

It teaches resilience, humility, and wisdom. We learn not to take ourselves too seriously and to laugh at ourselves.

When I celebrate baptisms, I often say to the parents, ‘There are two things I ask of you: that you love your child unconditionally, and teach them that, in the larger scheme of things, they don’t matter very much.’

Such messages are not popular in our culture.

Some parents believe that preventing their children from failing is helpful. The intention is understandable, but the result is not beneficial. It breeds fragility in the child and a sense that the world owes them something.

This approach is called ‘helicopter parenting.’ (The parents perpetually hover over their children always on the look-out for trouble.)

Some time ago, Jacqueline Maley wrote an excellent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘We should teach our children how to fail’ ( ) She suggests that failure makes people interesting, whereas those ’who project success and perfect hair are tedious.’ Ironically, perhaps, those who embrace failure are likely to be more happy, as well as interesting.

By many measures, Jesus’ ministry failed.

Rome executed him as a ‘terrorist.’ His friends deserted him, and his burning hope of a transformed world lay shredded at the foot of the cross.

Contemplating Jesus’ failure does not detract from appreciating what he stood for. It adds to it.

Indeed, it points out that there is a path through failure.

It also says there is no shortcut.

Here is the central dynamic of Christian faith: be inspired and set out in hope; discover, sadly, that projects of hope usually hit brick walls and fail; then, and only then, look for a slightly different hope and begin again!

Let me rephrase the headline of Jacqueline Maley’s article, ‘We should teach one another, friends in Christ, how to fail.’