The Surprising Gift of Failure


In American culture, success is defined by money. Now can we just agree that the success = money paradigm has serious flaws? For have you noticed that the most financially successful people are often lacking the traits that create great human beings? Take just one list of such traits from the Christian tradition: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

Yet the issue is not just money. In other cultures, success is defined by family status or caste, or even the number of children one parents. In many religious congregations in the United States, success equals a clean moral record. And again, the people achieving the pinnacle of success and adulation by these measures often fail to become great human beings.

This is because failure is the pathway to spiritual fecundity, to the deepening of soul, in the way that integration of compost is key to the fecundity of a garden. And there is nothing we humans want to avoid and deny more than failure. How have we not learned that the transformation of dead matter (failure, death, loss) into an agent of growth is the pattern we see everywhere—from the smallest plant to the evolving cosmos continually expanding and birthing new life from the detritus of death. How have we not learned that failure-inspired growth is the process that creates stunning and spiritually-empowered individuals? The more we avoid failure, either by jaw-clenching effort or so-called good fortune, the more anemic we become in the ways that truly matter. Just as importantly, the more we deny failures that do occur, the more stunted we become. This is why failure doesn’t automatically lead to spiritual maturity. Some people invest the whole of their energy and time covering up their many failures, not only stunting growth but exhausting themselves and those around them and making society sick. Presently, such a person occupies the White House.

The perennial pattern I have described presents a serious challenge to merit-based modalities of religion that seem designed to buffer adherents from experiences of failure—moral and otherwise. In my religious upbringing in conservative Christianity, the focus certainly seemed to be on creating individuals who were inoculated against moral failure and poised for “success.” This to such a degree that personal failures (especially those involving the body) were assiduously hidden and denied, and the failures of others shamed. Even emotion was kept tightly in check so that everyone looked buoyant and successful and beautiful. These well-intentioned Christians were failing left and right, but their near total denial of failure bred spiritually immaturity and perpetuated the fallacy that success equals Godliness.

The inability to understand the failure pattern likewise presents a challenge in the political realm. In political life, too, the pattern holds. Failure is the pathway to growth of character, maturity, vision. Yet in politics, failure and humility are deemed poisonous, even anathema.

“Ego inflation” is the term commonly used in psychology and spirituality to name the risk we run when avoiding and/or denying failure. Ego is the sense we have of ourselves as separate, autonomous, all-powerful agents. Developing ego is an important aspect of early human development, for we all need a sense of ourselves and of personal responsibility or agency. But as long we rely solely on ourselves, on ego, to get us through this journey called life, we have no need for divine connection. We have no reason to transcend the small ego self and merge with the unfathomably greater Self that issues from God and is one with the divine in all things. We are each a unique incarnation of God in this world. But the only way we encounter this knowledge or open to it is when we are soul-sick of our small and self-centered identities, gradually putting them into perspective and letting them go.

The collective failures of the small self, or ego, are powerful enough to wake us to something larger—usually with the blunt force of a train wreck. We lose a marriage, we lose a life to addiction, we lose a business, we lose a relationship with a child, we lose our reputation, we lose our money, we lose our sense of purpose, we lose the support of our community, we lose self-respect. This message: that the defeat and failure of the ego wakes us to our only real, transcendent life, is essentially the message central to most mature, later Pauline theology (read Romans). It is the basis for the upside-down thinking taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It is at the core of Christian apocalyptic literature. Beyond Christianity, it is the essence of Buddhism and Taoism, of the “surrender” at the core of much Islamic religion, of the “powerlessness” encapsulated elegantly in the Twelve Steps, and the poetry of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” All of the wisdom traditions of the world are trying to teach us this paradoxical way of living and growing into greatness. The common roadmap is failure.

Today the extremes of both progressive and conservative Christianity are sick with looping, narcissistic messages of ego-inflation. Both tend to be shrill and self-aggrandizing and narrow in their so-called “inclusion.” Without a theology of failure, powerlessness, surrender, and transcendence, both are missing the key, which is immersion in the mercy of God. The only time we ever dive into divine mercy is when we acknowledge our failures. And dive in, we must.

Every wise woman and wise man I know has suffered a major humiliation or failure—usually several. They have been humbled by life in such a way that compelled them to dive headlong into divine mercy. They have integrated their failures. Mercy overflows their banks. My own story is one of trudging into early adulthood success-bound and ego-promoting until all and sundry crashed around me in my thirties and I surrendered to the glorious pattern: transformation through failure and death. Over time I stopped worrying so much about success. I no longer had so much to prove.

Buddhism conceptualizes a contrast between “contracting” and “opening.” The teaching brings to mind a sea creature called an anemone. If you have visited an ocean tide pool, you have likely bent to touch this clingy little creature. As it feels your touch, it contracts like a viscous muscle, closing around the touch and either shrinking in defense, or clinging. When it feels free and unthreatened, it opens, taking on the likeness of a wind-fluttered flower under water.

When we contract like an anemone in the presence of failure or “sin” (Greek: hamartia or “falling short”), we close the doorway that lets in the mercy. Usually we contract because we fear reprisal and exposure, or because we cannot bear the blistering humiliation. Usually we do this many times in life before we are soul-weary of the clenching and darkness and desperate to open to transcendence.

Of late I am reflecting on all of this as our very democracy suffers devastating failures. So much seems to have gone awry. Either we can contract in the midst of it, sinking into denial and/or the shrill self-defensiveness of immaturity, becoming increasingly combative and flank-guarding, or we can open to the transcendence and growth that are fertilized by genuine failure. A democracy is comprised on nothing but demos, meaning “people.” And each one of us is invited in this moment of collective failure to choose openness over contraction, humbling over self-aggrandizing, new insight over defensiveness of old thought-patterns. We must open to new ways of doing common life or we will continue to suffer.


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2 thoughts on “The Surprising Gift of Failure

  1. Presently such a person occupies the White House. I don’t think that comment was necessary, I think it was Judgmental. I am not trying to defend our president. But it has been 10 months and people won’t stop the condemnation. I’ve never seen anything like it – so much hatred especially in the media. I am personally ashamed of the way Americans are behaving. Why can’t they just let God be in control? We need to pray for our president instead of putting him down. Right or wrong God will take care of it

    1. Thanks for the comment! I make no excuses for the media, who operate by binary thinking, and who are vituperative, ratings-hungry, and often ridiculous–on both sides of the debate. But I disagree that we cannot call out the President, making legitimate critiques and using our best judgment when the stakes are so high. In fact, I think we must speak out or be complicit. The President works of us, the demos, and his extreme immaturity and instability are dangerous, as a conservative Republican senator expressed so well yesterday. I agree with the senator that we owe it to our kids to speak up. The Judeo-Christian tradition has a rich tradition of calling out those in power.

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