"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Things That Failure Teaches (Sunday, March 27, 2011)

            Most of you probably don’t remember the children’s story from last Sunday. (Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Sometimes, even I have to look up what I preached on the week before, and certainly two or three weeks before.) But last Sunday’s children’s story stayed with me. So much so, that I decided to change the worship schedule for this week, and preach a whole sermon on the topic. Lucky you!

            The topic was “failure”; more particularly, famous people—tops in their fields, really—who had failed the first, or second, or in Thomas Edison’s case, the first 999 times—when they attempted that Big Accomplishment for which they would later become famous. We heard about Lincoln, and how he failed at almost everything he attempted before he became President. We heard about Freud was booed off the stage the first time he gave a public address about his ideas; about how Albert Einstein was labeled as “sub normal” by his parents and teaches, and even flunked math; about how R.H. Macy failed running a store five times before he opened shop in New York City; about how Michael Jordan got cut from the team in high school.

            All these examples—and many, many more—pages of them—are from a website called “But They Did Not Give Up”, which I found just fascinating. Let me cite a few more examples for you:
            We remember Babe Ruth as a great home run hitter; for many years, his 714 home runs stood unchallenged in the record book. But so did his record 1330 strikeouts—the most by anyone for decade after decade. And who broke Babe Ruth’s record for the most home runs in one season? Mark McGwire. And who broke the Babe’s record for most strikeouts in a season? Mark McGwire.

            In his first professional race, the cyclist Lance Armstrong finished—you guessed it—last. Johnny Unitas’s first pass in the NFL was intercepted. After Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the testing director sent MGM a memo that said, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” When the lovely Julie Andrews took her first screen test (again for MGM) the final determination was that she was “not photogenic enough for film.” After his first audition, Sidney Poitier was told by the casting director (I don’t know if it was at MGM): “Why don’t you stop wasting time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” When Lucille Ball was studying to become an actress, she was told by the head instructor at the John Murray Anderson Drama School, “Try any other profession. You’re no actress.”
            It reminds me of what the administrator of the Cordon Bleu in Paris told Julia Child when she began studying there after World War Two: “Madame Sheeld, you will never be a real French cook.” The first time Julia tried to chop onions, she cut her finger, dropped the knife, let the onion slip out of her hands, off the table, and onto the floor—while all around her the other students (all men, by the way) chop, chop, chopped through their onions with carefree abandon.
            So, what did Madame Child do?

            In a scene beautifully captured by Meryl Streep in the movie Julie and Julia, Julia Child went back to her apartment in Paris (after stopping at the market first, I suppose) and began to chop onions furiously—dozens and dozens of them—for hours, until her eyes filled with tears, and the air reeked of onion juice, and she had become an onion chopper par excellence.
            That’s what all of these men and women did, in fact, each in their own way, each in their own field. Babe Ruth got up to bat again. Johnny Unitas threw another pass. Lance Armstrong got back on his bike. Julie Andrews—and Sidney Poitier—and Lucille Ball—looked for another chance to get in front of the camera. And Fred Astaire kept dancing… and dancing… and dancing. And no one has danced like him since.

            But of course, even after she had graduated from the Cordon Bleu, and had become a “real cook”, and had co-authored a cookbook destined to change the way Americans cooked (and ate), Julia had to wait through rejection slip after rejection slip (from a good half dozen publishers) before her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was accepted by Knopf. (Years ago, when I was minister in Hartland, Vermont, one of my parishioners had been an editor for Houghton Mifflin, and had actually been on the review committee there that rejected Julia’s book. He said he lived in fear that his obituary would be headlined “On committee that rejected Julia Child manuscript”.)
            Now, are there common denominators here that all these examples offer? Are there important lessons that these famous failures teach us? I think there are a few.
            The first lesson is the most obvious, I suppose; it’s about perseverance. Try, try again, and all that. It may even seem trite to say it. But we can’t deny its truth, can we? I would bet that relatively few people, embarking upon a significant endeavor in their lives, succeed the first time around. Immediate success is usually considered something of a fluke, and there is often a tragic dimension to the lives of those for whom success has come too easily, or who peak too soon or too young in their lives. There are very few writers like Harper lee, who write the Great American Novel on their first attempt. But then again, Harper Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. Thankfully (perhaps?) that isn’t the case for most of us. Most of us don’t become “boy wonders” (or “girl wonders”) by the time we’re 21. There’s something deep in our human natures, I think, that leads us on “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Most of us, I think—and most people who do become renowned at what they do—are more like the great musician Pablo Cassals—always striving, always seeking, always honing his craft, always thinking he could get it just a little bit better. When he reached 95, a reporter asked him, “Mr. Casals, you’re 95 years old and the greatest cellist who ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” Cassals replied, “Because I think I’m finally making progress.”

            Failure keeps us on the road toward becoming who we can truly be. Not a great cellist like Cassals, necessarily. Not even necessarily rich and famous at what we do. But always growing, always evolving, always deepening and expanding who we are. That’s our chief human calling, I think: to evolve, to deepen, to strive.
            Does that mean that if we try something and fail—then try again—that we’re bound to succeed, sooner or later? Not at all. In any human enterprise, there is no pre-ordained guarantee of success. Sometimes, failure gives us nothing more than a good, solid reality check. Sometimes, we set our sights too high. Sometimes, our goals just aren’t reasonable. Sometimes, the picture we have of ourselves and of our personal talents just aren’t in line with reality. Failure can teach us that. When things come crashing down all around us, we have the opportunity to stop and ask who it is we really are. As Robert Frost wrote:
                        The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
                        Throws down across our path is not to bar
                        Our passage to our journey’s end for good
                        But just to ask who we think we are.   
            When God closes a door, he opens a window, the little expression goes. Failure can free us; it can liberate us from the false expectations others pile on us, or that we pile on ourselves.
            Enrico Caruso’s music teacher said he had no voice to speak of, let alone to sing with. His parents wanted him to become an engineer. Bruce Springsteen’s father wanted him to become a lawyer. Something tells me that, if they had listened to those who “knew better” Caruso wouldn’t have been a very good engineer; and Springsteen as a New Jersey lawyer? I don’t think so.
            But as J.K. Rowling (who, as we heard last week, had her first Harry Potter book rejected by “only” twelve publishers) said at Harvard: “Failure set me free because my greatest fear had already been realized and, here I was, still alive… Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Such is true of all experience in life, however bad it might seem at the time: if it doesn’t kill us, it teaches us something. Few experiences are worth as much wisdom per minute as failure is-- if it doesn’t kill us, and if we don’t allow it to define who we really are.
            Failure is something we do; it is not something we are. Between those two ways of looking at failure lies a Grand Canyon of human experience. Our failures are important elements that go into making up the whole package of our beings. They are not, however, our beings. We only become “Losers!” if we choose to define ourselves in terms of our failures, and not in terms of what we learn from them.
            So, failure can teach us the absurdity of trying again and again, and failing again and again—of futilely banging our head against the wall over and over in pursuit of unrealistic and unreachable goals. Failure can teach us how absurd that is. And yet…
            What if Thomas Edison has stopped after Failure # 995. What if he’d said, “This light bulb thing isn’t ever going to work,” and had gone home and lit a candle and had supper? What if J.K.Rowling had not sent that manuscript about a boy wizard with a scar across his brow to the 13th publisher?
            Failure, as many things in life, is often about discernment, about knowing ourselves, and really trying to hear what that Inner Voice is saying. It’s about sorting and sifting through the varied strands of our existence and coming just a little closer to knowing why we’re here. “We live our lives only in fragments,” the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. But when we discern deeper meaning in one of those fragments, we come face to face with God. Likewise, when we discern that “big idea” which is ours, we cling to it with all heart and soul, though in the eyes of the world it seems absurd.

At the end of last season, a writer named Christopher Hayes from Chicago posted a blog with the impressive title “A Brief Description of the Spiritual Lessons Gleaned from the Cubs’ Failure to Win the World Series for the 99th Consecutive Year”. The article was actually much shorter than the title. It read, in full: “The Buddha was right. Attachment is suffering.”
            Failure reminds us not to be too attached to any specific outcomes in our endeavors. Because the important thing for us men and women, on this tortuous, demanding, exhilarating. magnificent, tragic, heroic never-ending human journey is the endeavor, and not necessarily the short term result. (Which is not to say that we don’t want to win, and we don’t want to succeed, and we don’t our efforts to bear fruit. Because we do. That’s human nature, too.)
But the older I get, the more I believe that in the short run (and that means the 70 or 80 or whatever years most of us have on this planet), our goals are reached (maybe) half the time. And the good guys win only 50% of the time—at most. That is sometimes tragic, but it’s also enormously empowering and freeing, because that gives us something for which to strive, for which to seek, and occasionally even to find, and never to yield before forces of despair and discouragement.
Creation’s Lord, we give Thee thanks
That this Thy world is incomplete;
That battle calls our marshaled ranks;
That work awaits our hands and feet.

For ultimately, what we label as “success” or “failure” has less to do with fame and renown and riches in the eyes of the world, and more with how we see ourselves in those fragmentary epiphanies of which Bonhoeffer wrote.
It is our failures which humanize us. They teach us the importance of humor and not taking ourselves too seriously. They help us to build that bridge of compassion with all those other imperfect, fallible beings with whom we share this world. They bring in to clearer relief the man or the woman each of us truly is. They lead us ever onward to the greater things that are ours to do—toward that greater soul who we are called to be.  
Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
The goal may ever shine afar—
The will to win it—
and the willingness to fail at it— makes us free.

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