The Importance of Failure

Everybody fails.

Imagine sitting in a classroom and being told at the beginning of the term that everyone in the class will fail. There would probably be a dash to the registrar’s office in order to drop the class. But, imagine again, that dropping the class is not an option. You are going to take the class and you are going to fail. Will you listen to the lectures? Will you bother to show up for class? Will you study for the tests?

No one wants to fail. The knowledge of coming failure is likely sufficient information to make most people write-off the entire experience. If you’re going to fail, why bother? Oddly, if the same class began with the announcement that everybody in the class is going to receive an ‘A,’ would the outcome be much different? If you knew the ‘A’ was guaranteed, would you bother to attend, to listen, to study?

The tragedies in these scenarios are that the single goal of the class, the only possible reason for attending, is missed. The reason is gaining the knowledge that is being offered. The failing grade or the ‘A’ only exist to nurture that single goal in the minds of students.

Life is not a classroom, but the heart of a classroom is often formed and shaped in us from an early age. We live for the grade (one way or another). Nobody likes to fail. We do not always live for the knowledge.

The comedian, Don Novello (Fr. Guido Sarducci), had a routine in which he offered a “five-minute university.” It was a five-minute summary of everything you’d remember from college five years later. “Economics: Supply and Demand,” and so on. Some 40-odd years removed from college, I can say that he nailed it. I remember the phrase, “quadratic formula.” Now I wouldn’t know one if I saw it. But I loved every ‘A’ I ever received. I even have a few awards that I received for those stellar achievements.

Everybody fails.

I think failure is far more important than success. Not everybody succeeds. Failure is the true universal experience. Learning to deal with failure is certainly among the most important skills in life. It is also essential for being a Christian.

The general experience of failure is that it is accompanied by shame. When we fail, we feel that we have not only fallen short by some external measure but have fallen short as a person. We feel diminished and of less worth. For some, this experience has been internalized to such an extent as to be their default self-perception. That’s the voice of toxic shame.

The dialog between Christ and the Tempter is worth considering. “If you are the Son of God, then…” The subtle message is that “you’re not really the Son of God.” Shame had worked in the Garden. There, the Tempter said to Eve:

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Here, the message is that God does not want us to be like Him. We are not who we thought we were. That shaming word caused a doubt, and then a sin. Christ rebuffs the Tempter, letting the shame pass Him by as He stood in the Scriptures. We are who God says we are, not what our failures would seek to make of us.

We are a culture of measurements. We imagine that if something (or someone) can be measured, it can be quantified and improved. Efficiency, productivity, and usefulness become existential categories as though our lives were beans for the counting. My first year out of seminary, I served as a Deacon in a parish with a priest who had interesting ideas. One of those was that all clergy are lazy. He set a requirement that I was to keep a precise record of everything I did, every phone call, every visit, etc. I gave a report to the Vestry every month. I was to work six days a week. It was a regime that haunted me for a number of years, a message of shame that is the stuff of clergy burnout. That year I rescued him from a suicide attempt (long story). This stuff is deadly.

There is a fear that if we do not fear failure, we will never succeed. It is the same mentality that imagines the gospel to only be successful if it is backed by the threat of hell. It is, I think, the voice of shame and shaming. My experience is that when the world is seen through this lens, success itself brings no satisfaction. It is always haunted by the possibility of failure that waits around the corner.

St. Paul said that he would “boast of his ‘weaknesses,’” noting that, “in my weakness His strength is made complete.” Many times the strength of God is made complete simply as we sit in His presence and acknowledge our failure. This acknowledgement is bearable when we allow our failure to be captured and swallowed by His strength.

The success messaging that permeates our culture is, strangely, shame-producing. We offer “positive” reinforcements for children, but often presume that confronting failure will simply overwhelm them, leaving them unprepared for what inevitably lies ahead. To have a healthy “self-image” is best nurtured with a confidence in the love and acceptance that surrounds us rather than a constant bath of affirmative pep-talks. Failure should not be a cause for shame.

Our culture has taken much of its inner meaning from the market-place. That there is a Christian movement described as preaching the “Prosperity Gospel” is not odd. What is odd is that American Christianity has ever been described as doing much else. Joel Osteen’s great heresy is saying out loud what so many others imply with better taste. Many of the events surrounding the Second Great Awakening in America were sponsored by local businessmen. A godly, sober workforce was always to be preferred. Moral people make better workers.

Ancient Christianity caused something of a crisis in Rome when monasticism suddenly burst on the scene. The children of the rich were renouncing their wealth and power at such a rate that it was feared the empire would be wanting in leadership. American Christianity has never had a crisis of wealth and power. The virtues of the marketplace and the virtues of the faith have become synonymous.

As the Christian faith was settling into the “success” of being ancient Rome’s state religion, monasticism was populating the surrounding countryside. It was an abiding rebuke of the new order, and probably the great saving force within the new Christian polity. There has really not been a movement within the past several hundred years that offered a check on the modern Christian love-affair with success. It has largely been transfigured into the American pantheon of sports-heroes, actors, and politicians. We have become important. Along with the American mythos, we can claim to have “changed the world.” But that transformation has been little more than the export of American consumerism instead of the gospel of Christ.

Christ’s most serious warnings to His disciples were reserved for “mammon.” His words were absolute, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The gospel of success is the servant of mammon. Tragically, when we ask questions of how our nation is doing, the answer is to look at the stock market. The assumption is that money, lots of money, will solve all problems.

Of course, this creates something of a tension in our lives. People need money. This was true when Christ warned about mammon and it remains true today. It is generally the case in our faith that we do not condemn the things of the world, for they are blessed of God. But rightly using the things of the world is both the right path and the more difficult path.

Thus, it is not wrong to “succeed,” only we should beware of worldly success and the danger it presents to our souls. There is ever-so-much material in the tradition on how to live with such dangers. However, our uncritical acceptance of the culture-myths that surround modern success have left us deaf to the words of the gospel and the true good of our soul. If we listened carefully for that true good, we would have less fear of failure and greater confidence in God who called to Himself those who labor and are heavy-laden. His yoke is easy.

47 comments:

  1. “ American Christianity has never had a crisis of wealth and power. The virtues of the marketplace and the virtues of the faith have become synonymous.”

    Ouch…

  2. Thank you Father (and for your other recent posts). I know you do not like politics so I am going to try to phrase something I want to say without delving deeply into that subject.

    But the success Gospel isn’t only about money. Mammon is a materialistic way of life. I see around me people (and some I consider very, very serious Orthodox people) who seem to think that fixing the world is our goal. Some seem to have bought into the notion that unless every single wrong is righted down to the last possible case and context, we haven’t done our jobs — and that this is our job. But Christ told us that “the poor you will always have with you.” He did not fix the whole world. Success is not the definition of our goals here. We have a kind of code to follow, regardless of how much of a failure the world is, or we are. I was reading St. Paul today on how he wanted his Church to conduct itself in the broader society; he had one solid beam-like focus on what was most important. We desperately need that focus. This success creed is yet one more way in which shame and failure are guaranteed, and it frankly misses the whole point — at least in my estimation.

  3. Janine,
    You are very much on target. I think that in many ways, God specifically gave us the Church, constituted as it is, precisely because of its weakness and its failure. It is the path into union with Christ and His Cross. Those who preach the gospel of success also have a Cross-less Christianity, or have made the Cross into something that it is not.

  4. Father Stephen,
    Failure in the worldly, secular meaning is easy for all of us to imagine. Even the most successful people tend to mention their failures as springboards for success. It’s an almost Homerian narrative that delights the modern mind.
    What of the spiritual failure? The way up that is the way “down”? The weakness that is manifested when we fail to obey God’s law and live our lives in Christ? I often wonder whether holy men and women, too, feel they are failing when comparing themselves to the saints before them.
    Is failure linked to feelings of envy in both the secular and spiritual world? I recall St Anthony’s (I think?) thought of ‘why am I not Christ’. Forgive me if I am misquoting. Compared to Christ and the Saints we are all failures.
    It is a way to humble ourselves and, I fear, for many, a way to desperation. In this life, we are guaranteed an F (or a Z) eventually and we can only hope God will grant us a passing grade.

  5. I think our culture despises humility, it cannot stand obedience. People I’ve spoken with, friends, all have an identical knee-jerk reaction to these things. A very concrete “No!” when we discuss them. They are, in most people’s eyes, synonymous with failure. But it is the failure of the individual to “own” “their lives” that they fear, IMHO. Much of our fear of failure is a fear of losing our autonomy, in needing others. And the idea (and I use that word purposefully, as our country worships ideas over almost everything else) of needing God is equally insulting to many. Just my thoughts.

  6. “I think our culture despises humility, it cannot stand obedience. ”
    Funny you should say that, Byron. When I read Father’s account as a Deacon, where he actually did carry out his Priest’s order, my very first reaction was to say “and he (Fr Stephen) did that?!” As if to say, “not me!”. Only to be moved to tears at Father saving the man’s life. I thought “what if Father hadn’t obeyed him?”. I hoped that the Priest was ok after that.

    I think you are right about our culture. For myself, I would not say that I despise humility. I know very well that I am in great need of it. Ironically, when I allow for it, that lack is humbling in itself.
    But I do despise having to bear too much shame. I would have been shamed to the max if I had to write down every single move I made for months at a time. Now that would’ve sent me over the edge.

  7. Father Stephen, in your closing paragraph, you said, “Thus, it is not wrong to “succeed,” only we should beware of worldly success and the danger it presents to our souls. There is ever-so-much material in the tradition on how to live with such dangers.” I am not familiar with any of this material. Would you please recommend one or two works that might be helpful for those of us needing to delve into this further?

  8. Byron –

    “Much of our fear of failure is a fear of losing our autonomy, in needing others.”

    I so agree. I have been ill my entire adult life and unable to support myself financially. SSI does not provide enough for me to be independent. I have had to live in the homes of other people or be homeless. I’ve had to ask for financial help from my Church off and on over the years. I hate being in this position. I would much rather be giving to the Church. It certainly causes me to feel shame. Sometimes dying seems more attractive than asking for help once again. But I have slowly come to accept that God has placed me in this position for my salvation. It has made me realize just how much I need Him. Without this extremely personal failure, I highly doubt I would have ever opened my heart to Christ and His Church. So my greatest failure has also been my greatest success so-to-soeak, in that it has taught (forced) me to embrace humility in way that probably nothing else could have.

  9. Father Stephen, I have deeply appreciated the last several posts—and this one!—along with the comments. So much to prayerfully consider. I am grateful for the opportunity to read here and occasionally share my thoughts.

    Failure, shame, worldly success, and Christianity. I am so full of emotion after reading this post.

    What is the first thing we ask when we meet someone new? What is the first thing we ask when we meet a young person (aged 17 – 25 years)? What do these questions say about what is most important to us about people?

    When you tell someone you’ve just met about your family, what do you tell them about your children?

  10. Thank you for these reminders about the danger in chasing “success.” As a Protestant Christian, I have discovered that I have had to seek the message of humility and suffering found more readily in the writings of Catholic and Orthodox believers in order to more fully embrace my Christian faith. I spent too many years chasing “Christian-approved success” instead of seeking to be at rest in the abundant grace of the Lord found in my weakness and humble vocation.

  11. A particularly spot on article, Father. Thank you.

    As you may recall one of my working theses is that one of, if not the, key problem of Western Christianity is its underpinning over-emphasis on a “go to heaven or hell” view of salvation. While it tends towards a reward-punishment judgemental framework, I wonder whether its more subtle problem is that it is helps establish a pretty much binary A or F framework about who we are. Either you are a “worthy” and deserve an A (and go to heaven), or you are an unworthy failure as a human being and deserve an F (and go to hell). There are no in-betweens, unless you count the late medieval invention of purgatory (a deferred A but spend time in detention in the meantime?). Both as your just rewards. In that model Jesus may step into pay the price for your bad deeds, but your worthiness – often internalized – does not change. You are still an F, it’s just that Jesus was such an A the grade was replaced on the report card. The prosperity gospel crowd is just the latest manifestation of that (albeit a particularly weird inversion of the gospel), and translates it into a worldly setting.

    But I can’t help but think that one of the things the world really does need is an alternative to all the judging report card approaches to life out there (boy are we a society that does that) and does not need religion imposing yet more at the cosmic and eternal level. While judgement is no doubt real, I doubt very much whether it is what most people think it is. And while Salvation may in the end be a mystery, the Pascha of Christ is surely in part tells us that real life is nothing like that – we are already free to be vulnerable, free to love because we are loved – and our underlying worthiness is not in question and that Christ’s Resurrection is the power power that breaks all. Awe-filled Adulation (that has gone way beyond the self) is the real A. Fear of failure (and a shrinking, small, sad and needy self) is the real F.

    “But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.” John 6:20-21

    Glory be to God in the Highest and Peace to all people on earth!

  12. Esmee, just a note: I have enjoyed your posts here over the years. Gentle, kind, astute. Seems to me you are supporting the Church.

  13. I liked getting A’s too, Faher, when I was a student! Thanks to many teachers, I also liked the learning process.
    During the lockdown I have been studying languages on Duolingo (Scottish Gaelic, then German). When I make a few mistakes in a row, the program encourages me with a note, “You are learning through your mistakes.” This seems to me the correct attitude to failure in most cases, one that we always need to cultivate.
    Thank you as always for your posts. You write about repeating yourself – you are in good company! I heard Fr Tom Hopko say more than once that he only had one talk, and gave it “with variations.”
    Glory to God!

  14. How do we overcome our cultural tendency for self-help/self-improvement? In other parts of the world the workplace is more straightforward, you work to gain money/power in order to provide for your family, but the American workplace has become more creative in explaining the purpose of work. The middle class workplace is now pushing the ideas of self-improvement or lifestyle instead of gaining money / power. How can we overcome the heresy of self-improvement to truly grasp theosis? I find the self-help attitude to be more of a shaming problem in that the responsibility for failure (and success) falls completely on the individual.

  15. One other example of an ascetic “failure as success” (and “success as failure”) is to be found in the Hesychast tradition through the effects of the observant practice of the Jesus prayer (“Nepsis”). It arises because the greater the “success” (in both quantity and quality) of this habit, the more clearly one discovers one’s own “failure” through it: one’s profound weakness and sinfulness. It becomes like some light shining and revealing the abyss of our darkness, or some moment-to-moment-liberation that exposes the sophistication of our deeply established enslavements. The further one clings to this spiritual practice, the further they come to realise their despairing need to cling to it even more…!
    But the practice of the Jesus prayer, despite its entreaty for ‘mercy’, is also an actualisation of Christ’s prayer, ‘Thy will be done”. When you tranquilly compose the mind in the heart, in constant, ardent remembrance of the ubiquitous nearness of the Divine presence – as person to Person, the utter surrender to God, in knowledge of one’s own total ‘failure’, becomes the very ‘success’ conferred to the one who prays (the created person). The heart humbly offers this spiritual watchfulness in time, but in doing so, becomes bound to the Uncreated God, exulted outside of time.

  16. How do we overcome our cultural tendency for self-help/self-improvement?

    David, I just realized something today. Forgive me for a short story.

    I went and walked 3 1/4 miles around Lafortune Park last night. Good, brisk, march pace. But, on the way home, my brain suddenly went, “Eggo Waffles are THE BOMB!” and I ended up at the store where I bought Eggo’s, syrup, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Little Debbie powdered donuts, spaghetti (which I actually need), and Orange Juice!

    Got home, pulled the toaster that hadn’t been used in 8+ years out of the corner and ate two Eggo’s (with syrup) along with the bag of Little Debbie donuts! I’m pretty sure I more than offset any good I did at the track…. So much for my health.

    The point being: I shrugged this off as a bad decision and tonight I’ll resume my workouts as scheduled. There’s really nothing wrong with self-improvement, just don’t worry overmuch about it. Shrug off any failure(s) and move on. “Don’t obsess” is probably the best thing to remember. Just my thoughts.

  17. The book Dee provided for us in the previous post –
    https://ctl.oregonstate.edu/sites/ctl.oregonstate.edu/files/stop_talking_final.pdf
    I think addresses these issues (and more) we have been discussing in a manner I find quite refreshing. Their tradition speaks of ways the resonate deeply with Orthodox tradition. In the beginning pages two gentlemen speak of their Alaskan Native
    American upbringing. The first tells of his education which began at the age of four, his classroom – the world, and his teachers, the villagers. They speak
    of an approach to life that fosters healthy development of mind body
    and spirit. It is enlightening to learn about their tradition and it
    seems that their approach would help people steer clear of many of the
    problems we have been discussing, including bridge-building between
    distanced cultures who share the same living space. The growth of
    Orthodoxy in these lands seems like it would have been predictable,
    considering the shared deep reverence and respect for all life.
    Here are some excerpts:
    “Ilarion Merculieff – At the age of four [!], he was chosen by the Elders to
    serve as a bridge between traditional Aleut culture and the outside world….
    I was blessed to have a fully traditional upbringing, by which I mean
    I was raised by my entire village in the ways of the real human being.
    I was always welcomed into everyone’s home and treated as if I were a
    member of the family. I was never scolded for anything and had the
    freedom to roam the island anytime day or night without restriction.
    Basically, I was free to explore my world inside and out without
    interference by adults. Of course, none of this would have been
    possible without the agreement of my parents. Most children in the
    village were raised this way….”

    “Words are not only superfluous, but they also constrain our
    intelligence. Adults never presumed any limitation to my intelligence
    or ability to learn, nor tried to tell me what I should learn.
    Instead, they provided learning opportunities. The adult’s
    responsibility was simply to create a big open space in which the
    young one can learn. The beauty and deep wisdom of that kind of learning is that it allowed me to reach my maximum potential. What I learned depended totally upon my own interests, initiative, experiences, interpretations, discernment, and
    intelligence. Western-cultured adults often begin with fixed ideas
    about what children should and should not know. They teach to that
    presumed and predetermined standard of knowledge, sometimes at the
    expense of the child’s creativity, sense of self, and natural ability
    to learn on his or her own. By contrast, nothing was held back from
    me. Anything I wanted to do, learn, or know, I could, without concern
    about my age. The only times adults intervened were for reasons of
    safety. The elders would gauge their responses by the questions I
    asked. They would answer at a level I could understand.
    In Western culture, we are taught to give the “right” answers, or at
    least try to. And the “right” answers, conveniently, are what they
    told you they are, things you have to learn by rote. That’s a reverse
    from the way I was raised. None of the things I learned about being
    Aleut came from books, and there were no wrong answers, only better or
    different ones. The Aleut learning process helped me to think
    creatively and critically, without judgment…something that has helped
    me immensely in my life and career.
    Aleut people know that human intelligence exists and operates not
    simply in the mind but in the body and spirit as well. We learn with all of our senses:
    hearing, feeling, smelling, intuition, gut responses, thinking,
    emotions, “heart sense,” and body signals. Intelligence is a system,
    synthesizing information from both sensory and non-sensory inputs.
    Underneath is a knowing which is profoundly connected to All That Is
    [!]. Ultimately, this is the basis for our spirituality. The way of a
    real human being is to understand and feel this connection.”

    Dee, again, thank you. The contents of this book and the lives of
    the people within are a blessing.

  18. “David says:
    How do we overcome our cultural tendency for self-help/self-improvement? In other parts of the world the workplace is more straightforward, you work to gain money/power in order to provide for your family, but the American workplace has become more creative in explaining the purpose of work. The middle class workplace is now pushing the ideas of self-improvement or lifestyle instead of gaining money/power. How can we overcome the heresy of self-improvement to truly grasp theosis? I find the self-help attitude to be more of a shaming problem in that the responsibility for failure (and success) falls completely on the individual.”

    This is a question I have long pondered and struggled with, and I think it depends on the place the desire to improve comes from. This lent, I came to the conclusion that any “self-improvement” that is not rooted in repentance is worthless. If I desire to improve my social standing or become more attractive to the opposite sex, etc., and I actually find means of attaining these things, did I really “improve” in anything? Or did I just learn how to look the part? Did I just hide the shame I have about myself that I am not “variable x” and found ways to put on “x” so that I can receive praise and acceptance by others in my social circle?

    For background, I am currently a medical student studying and stressing out for my board exams, which can dictate whether I can become a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins or a family practice doc in Greenbo, Alabama. I have been continually thinking…why is it I care so much about scoring well? Why am I so anxious? Is it to receive this world’s riches and glory? Or have I forgotten why I decided to become a physician, why I am an Orthodox Christian?

    Perhaps the answer to your question is simple. Am I doing this for my glory? Or am I doing this for God’s glory? Why do I wish to improve? Is it serve God and be as faithful as I can in my work? Or something else? Is it based on repentance? If my desire to improve is from a contrite repentance, how can it be wrong? Only true repentance reveals the reality of who I am, vs. who I am not. Upon what more excellent foundation can you start to truly “improve” yourself than this?

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for posting this. I can’t tell you how timely it is. Lord have mercy.

  19. David, Andrew,
    I think that when we ask “how do I not do something?” we always miss the point. The point is never the “not doing,” it’s the doing of the right thing. I recall when I was in seminary, I noticed that thinking about becoming a priest was bringing me various anxious scenarios. I decided to stop thinking about it. When people asked me, “Do you want to be a priest?” I said, “I’m a seminarian. I want to be a good seminarian.” We never have power over these future sort of questions – which is always the focus of sel-help/improvement.

    Maybe we don’t live so long. Maybe what we imagine is interrupted and never happened. Etc. What we have is now. The most important thing to do in life is to live – and to pay attention to how we live. Someone to night, somewhere, is dying. As they think about what is coming, they realize that they forgot to pay attention to the living that is not slipping away. And they so deeply regret it.

    Do now what you can only regret not having done later. Live. Pay attention to God at every moment in every thing – as you can. Each moment becomes an eternity and communion.

  20. It occurred to me this morning that as much as prayer and contemplation are central to spiritual practice in the Church so is work: the doing of things, physical things, in this world that need to be done not for the “future” but for the present. Simple things, sometimes uncomfortable and messy things. In a sense there is no “future”. Part of the sadness of the mostly western paradigm of salvation is its never present unreality which often is tinged with what can only be described as fantasy. “The Sweet By and By” .

    Once God is taken out of the picture, and He was quite early on, the fantasy eschatology still remains in the form of so called progress. All of it presupposes that God, happiness, fulfillment even salvation is somewhere else almost psychotically detached from this moment.

    Even the holy fools keep us anchored in the now precisely because they are so completely non-linear. Where else can we be but in the moment ?

    Traditional, Incarnational Christianity requires repentance, and thanksgiving and sorrow and pain and joy and tears be experienced now. Theosis is living every moment consciously with the living, ever present God (fully man as well) without distraction or displaced hope.

    Salvation is not as Luther posited: a divine covering of what is otherwise refuge and waste. No, Jesus Christ came down from heaven and became man. Fully, completely not to apply so bandage but to complete, fulfill and transfigure. The Cross, the Grave, the glorious third day Resurrection even the coming again are described and experienced in the Divine Liturgy as being present.

    So this morning when my wife were involuntarily awake trying to go back to sleep because of our bodies reminding us we are no longer young, I slipped my hand into hers as we lay next to each other and there was joy in the midst of the pain and the struggle and the worry. Sleep returned for a bit.

    As my wife and I affirm each morning at the end of our daily prayers: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

    May the mercy, peace, providence and joy of our Lord be with all here.

  21. Paula AZ, thank you for those lovely quotations, and to Dee for the article. What a window into what a healthy world looks like. I was recently reading that apparently there is well documented dip in middle school where western children at around the age of about 9 tend to become a lot less creative. They suddenly start comparing their creative efforts with others. They start getting graded and judged. Many stop doing things that were just goofy, and start getting “better at what really matters”. If they had a bad shaming experience it can shutdown creativity altogether. And our kids are at the same being rewarded with all those A’s and shamed with all those F’s their (our) struggling little egos get born into their path of “continuous improvement” without being aware it has also often given birth to always on-edge neurotic imbalance. Oh how different the world would be if we had Aleut childhoods!

    And Michael Bauman, could not agree more, especially of course on the salvation piece. Except maybe to think that play needs to be in there with work – it’s underrated, as Father has pointed out in the past. In the Aleut world maybe there is not that much difference, just an organic maturation?

  22. Ziton, I see your point but the two (work and play) are not a dicotomy. Think Mary Poppins: “Find the fun and ‘snap’ the job’s a game.”. The truck is seeing that fun does not mean trivial or without value.

  23. Ziton, plus there is nothing more in the moment than true play. I love the picture on the cover of the book, Everyday Saints. The monk is looking at the photographer with a truly joyful impishness. Makes me laugh every time I look at it. A joyful laugh that freed my soul. Or as the play write Christopher Fry wrote: “Laughter is the surest touch of genius in creation”

  24. Ziton and Michael…
    So, I’m halfway through the book Dee posted. I am engrossed. When I find something that wildly speaks to the soul of man, I am ‘there’. Listening. Emotion as a gauge of the level of presence, I am hardly without it. I think we all do this. in different degrees. Having an extreme personality, (a dear brother pointed this out to me recently… gave much clarity as to why extreme personalities react as they do. It was a shameless and most welcome revelation!) at times I unabashedly laughed and cried.
    I am glad you picked up on the message in those excerpts, Ziton. I actually had you in mind. When I read your insight that we are in need of a new way gaining knowledge apart from our “report card” approach, along with Father’s point that we miss out on gaining knowledge due in large part to our approach to learning and education, which leads to great fear and shame of failure. There are other comments that lean toward a question similar to yours…what do we do, what can we do, to reduce this self-defeating behavior that effects the lives and world around us.
    Thank you Ziton for your comments.
    Bear in mind too, that our Native peoples have been on this land for 10, 000 years. That statement blew my mind. Without going into its implications – of *real* American history, and our complete disregard for those who welcomed us foreigners to their shores – can you imagine what it is like to be reckoned as if you do not exist? Or to be acknowledged as undeserving of the same amenities of those in the dominant culture? Or what it is like to have to witness our current protests for the sake another oppressed culture in our midst and never to see us as a nation take a stand for their oppression as well.
    10,000 years. Man…..!
    There is a lot more that is said in that book. Their ‘Creation Story’; their rendition of what I see as a spiritual father – Aachaa; their emphasis on the importance of positive encouragement, edification, and avoidance of any implication that the teacher is ‘better than’ the learner. No one is ‘put in their place’ like that while still maintaining respect for Elders. You will read of the necessity of Elders whose knowledge perpetuates their very existence; their oneness within themselves and between others, and all of creation and how they come to know this; their honor of their particular space on this earth, their particular ancestral land (among the many other native lands/”nations”); how, through the 5 senses, they assimilate in mind, body and spirit, knowledge that reflects a holistic, harmonious life. All of this makes for a freedom to eagerly embrace learning. Teaching and learning throughout life is predominantly orally transmitted from Elders and those who went before you. Storytelling is huge. Humor very important, and the ‘joke is on the self’, not the other. You will see many parallels with Orthodoxy. And you will see the grievousness in our intentional and unintentional forgetfulness of this people. They come to us and freely offer a healthy and enjoyable way of learning. I encourage you to read the entire book. Sorry for being so persistent!

    Michael…the dear people I speak of here know what it is like to live in the moment. Yet within that moment we read this very familiar teaching on the remembrance of death:
    “These Yup’ik Elders tell us that today we are living in an “inside-out” society in which
    we have reversed all the laws for living. We teach our children how to make a living; we don’t teach them how to live. Today the mind tells the heart what to do, whereas in our traditional cultures the heart leads and guides the mind. And, before, we had one foot in life and one foot in death; we contemplated the mystery of death in order to learn how to live . Today we contemplate the mystery of life; that’s all. We try to avoid even thinking about death, let alone letting it teach us how to live.”

    Oh boy…sorry for my much speaking! Forgive me if I irritate.
    And to Father and to Dee, I hope to God I am not overstepping my bounds with all this. Thank you both, and all of you, for your patience.

  25. Dear Paula,
    Thank you for pursuing this topic as you have in your comments. Your tender heart allows God to speak through your words, a grace-filled presentation of this book.

    Again thank you dear sister.

  26. Byron…on bookfinder.com the lowest price is $230.33. sold on overseas Amazon sites.
    Higher at another book-search site, AddALL. Even checked a third one.
    That route doesn’t look too promising.

  27. Many of the Native American cultures have great resonence with the Orthodox faith. As does, intriguingly, slave Christianity. I have long felt that they provided an avenue for the Baptism of this land that European cultures didn’t. When the Orthodox Church matures here, assuming it is not through martyrdom, she will be much less centered on old country language and culture. She will never loose those aspects but not be as dependent upon them.

  28. Hi Byron,
    I looked around for likely sources (mainly the UAA bookstore) it seems to be out of print at this time. However, you could print the pdf. I don’t enjoy reading via computer that much either, and when I can I print pdfs. If I do come across a cheaper source, I’ll let you know.

  29. I literally just stumbled across (hah!) the poem below by Kahlil Gibran and immediately thought it had resonances with this discussion, and found some of it moving. But Father, if you think it is suspect, please delete – I do have reservations with some of Gibran’s stuff.

    DEFEAT

    Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance,
    Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot
    And not to be trapped by withering laurels.
    And in you I have found aloneness
    And the joy of being shunned and scorned.

    Defeat, my Defeat, my shining sword and shield,
    In your eyes I have read
    That to be enthroned is to be enslaved,
    And to be understood is to be leveled down,
    And to be grasped is but to reach one’s fullness
    And like a ripe fruit to fall and be consumed.

    Defeat, my Defeat, my bold companion,
    You shall hear my songs and my cries and my silences,
    And none but you shall speak to me of the beating of wings,
    And urging of seas,
    And of mountains that burn in the night,
    And you alone shall climb my steep and rocky soul.

    Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,
    You and I shall laugh together with the storm,
    And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,
    And we shall stand in the sun with a will,
    And we shall be dangerous.

  30. Apologies, Father Stephen, but I have had till now a slightly different take on the shaming aspect of Satan’s statements to Eve and then to Christ in the desert. It seemed to me that he was offering a limited understanding of God in both instances: if you like, a shameful ‘take’ on who God is. That God doesn’t want you to be like him is thinking of God in a less good way. Eve then fails to be as strongly aware as Christ is in the desert of who God really is, a person who would not think so meanly of us. So Eve, and then Adam, gets an F where Christ , knowing what sort of a God His father is,gets an A.
    But indeed, if we are, as you say, who God says we are, that is a deeper understanding that is borne out by the comparison to Christ in the desert. For there, in the first challenge, Christ gives an answer
    not about what God is like, but says “Man does not live by bread alone…” And that is about what we are.

    Thank you!

  31. Father Stephen, this article has turned into something of a mind worm for me. Probably says something (a lot) about my own issues and preoccupations, but it also underlines what a very good article it is. Anyway, I am writing down here some of the alleyways I have found my mind taking me down, probably in large part as a way of unloading, but also in case any of these musings are of more general interest or use to anyone else. Again I am going to break the main points into separate posts, partly for length/digestibility, but also in case you want to cut anything (feel free).

    1. Helpful vs unhelpful failing

    You say “Learning to deal with failure is certainly among the most important skills in life. It is also essential for being a Christian.

    The general experience of failure is that it is accompanied by shame. When we fail, we feel that we have not only fallen short by some external measure but have fallen short as a person. We feel diminished and of less worth. For some, this experience has been internalized to such an extent as to be their default self-perception. That’s the voice of toxic shame.”

    Of course that’s right. But it begs the question what makes failing helpful vs toxic.

    My recent encounter with Brene Brown provided an insight that may be helpful. She suggests that ‘shame’ happens when we identify with a bad outcome, and guilt or humiliation is what happens when we regard the bad outcome as something we have done or as something that has happened to us.

    So if I do something really bad and think “I am a bad person” then that’s shame. If I do something and think “That was a terrible thing I did.” then it’s guilt. She posits that guilt is generally a helpful emotion because it is something we can do something about, whereas shame is pretty much always bad, and yes, if repeated becomes toxic.

    Her definition of ‘humiliation’ is the idea that I looked really, really stupid or incongruous or whatever in a situation whether or not caused by my behavior – i.e. a temporary thing that feels bad at the time but later can be something that can be looked at with amusement or as a learning thing. It turns into ‘shame’ when I identify myself as being that stupid or incongruous thing, and start to believe that. One example she uses is a classroom where the teacher is handing back tests to students and says “and this one doesn’t have a name on it. Hands up anyone who did not put their name on their assignment. No-one? Oh I think it must be Susie’s. Here’s yours Susie. Hey class, this is what someone who does not know how to put their name on their assignment looks like.” (Yes, an extreme bad teacher example.) Brown suggests that if Susie hears that as ‘the teacher has humiliated me in front of the classroom’ but does not completely identify with the assessment (perhaps thinking that the teacher is cruel) then that is humiliation. If Susie is not surprised by the assessment, and thinks she deserved it because yes she did not put her name on the assignment and is stupid and then just shrinks further into a bad view of herself then that’s shame. If it keeps on happening Susie will switch off and shrink and disappear into full blown toxic shame ‘I’m an F’ territory, and will probably then start to act out. It’s no doubt why so many repeat jail offenders suffer from deep seated shame issues.

    Maybe this is a useful lens to think about what constitutes good vs bad failure in failure situations? We have to be really careful not to over identify with the failure – which is a tricky thing to do especially while we are trying to be “humble” (and which ironically can also set us up for a shame/failure response when we are as not as “humble” as we think we should be). True humility must mean both acknowledging a failure, but also keeping it in perspective and not thinking it is “inherently who I am”. That is so hard! The drift to self judgement is so easy, especially when we keep on ‘failing’ in the same area. Maybe that is one of the meta-lessons to be drawn from our failures.

    As you say, Father, “St. Paul said that he would “boast of his ‘weaknesses,’” noting that, “in my weakness His strength is made complete.” Many times the strength of God is made complete simply as we sit in His presence and acknowledge our failure. This acknowledgement is bearable when we allow our failure to be captured and swallowed by His strength.”

    That inversion of the whole paradigm and the moving of it to God and even welcoming it has to be a big part of how we avoid the shame trap but to do it we do have to practice seeing what our own minds are doing to us. I found Dino’s nepsis observations helpful here, and in general.

  32. 2. The B Minus Problem

    I have been thinking that part of a practicing Christian’s problem is maybe not so much that we get an F, or think that is how we are going to be judged. Rather it is that we (certainly me) sort of complacently rate ourselves in the middle and are sort of, if also somewhat uncomfortably, content with that (which is one of the main points of the article about striving?). If you ask the average church going Christian of almost whatever denomination if they think they are a ‘bad’ person or a ‘good’ person, my hunch is that you’d probably get variants along the lines of ‘I’m somewhere in the middle’. Partly that’s because we all have enough of a sense of flaws to not rate ourselves as A’s, and in any event we both know and are socialized well enough to to know that that would be immodest and hence bad in itself. But then we also don’t tend to think of ourselves as being as bad as other people out there either. It’s the whole moral person thing you rightly identify as a key problem. If you were to press in and ask what rating we would give ourselves, I bet the average answer would probably end up being a B minus or C plus, with some people giving themselves D’s or E’s and the odd F for various reasons.

    If that’s right, then why does it happen? One reason I can think of is that over time we have become accustomed to thinking that we will fail at stuff and all those little failures translate into an “I am a B minus. I’m never going to be an A, so why bother” Also perfectionism both looks troubling, creates its own problems, and is really hard.

    Once we have become accustomed to our B minus / C plus status there can be a tendency to sort of relax into it, thinking that Jesus will sort it out down the track. (The grade replacement thing I mentioned in my first post).

    The reason for all that is the thought that our internalized ratings cards are quite a bit more nuanced than just A’s and F’s, and those nuances tell their own story and create their own dynamics.

    Perhaps the paradigmatic gospel example is the rich young man who wants to inherit (telling word) eternal life, calls Jesus “good teacher” (oh you’re an A student I can learn from) and then says that he has followed the commandments all his life (I am a B plus or A minus aspiring to A plus). When Jesus looks at him with love I can almost here a strand of an empathetic “poor deluded sweet boy” as he gives him what the next assignment looks like to go beyond the bounds of mere ‘A-ness’. Time to turn in your measuring sticks!

  33. 3. The ‘be perfect’ vs ‘lilies of the field’ paradox and the great race

    I also wonder about the extent to which the settle for the B minus problem is caused by the way we hear some of Jesus’ advice. We are told ‘be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” We are also told “behold the lilies of the field, neither do the toil nor spin”. There are others. Which can sound like “you need to strive for the impossible” and at the same time “be totally relaxed because it’s all in God’s hands”. Which in western Christian terms partly morphs into bizarre debates over faith vs works etc.

    So as we think about striving for A’s – with, as you say, the understanding that it is all about acquiring knowledge rather than merit – it seems to me that we need to hold those two commandment polarities in mind at the same time. We both need to strive – and there is a target on the bullseye (aka “perfection”) but at the same time we also absolutely need to keep in mind that we are lilies and just relax. We run the great race, and train for it, and learn from our mistakes, but at the end it is not really our race and we are who we are, but we try not to settle for comfortable mediocrity, and we are kind to ourselves and appreciate the organic training program we have been given. Etc. (Exhausting, but fun, just to put that down! :-)) In joy, and giving thanks to God at all times for all things including for the ride.

  34. 4. The report card at the heart of modernity

    As you say “We are a culture of measurements. We imagine that if something (or someone) can be measured, it can be quantified and improved. Efficiency, productivity, and usefulness become existential categories as though our lives were beans for the counting.”

    The more I have been thinking about this the more I think that this report card business really is everywhere in our society and it is one of the core issues that separates modernity from pre-modern times. The measurements are not just quantitative, they are also qualitative. Most moderns are trained to measure ourselves on pretty much every aspect of our lives. Things like looks/body image, intelligence, our houses, our jobs, our cars, our things, our social standing etc. I bet you could ask pretty much anyone who would be able to give you a rating of where they thought they stood on all those categories using the report card ratings. Even if people have not actually said the ratings out loud to themselves, they have been made and whole industries both rely on them and feeding insecurities about them in order to sell products – e.g. the multi-billion dollar cosmetics and fashion feed off body image insecurities etc.

    If our ratings are bad, or start to slip, we feel shame to varying degrees. It’s all very insidious.

    Presumably all cultures do the comparison thing to some degree (and let’s face it both the Eve and Cain stories both have comparison and discontent at the very core of how sin got started) ours seems to be particularly and bizarrely out there in terms of the extent and toxicity of it. We’ll never be beautiful enough, or happy enough, or smart enough, or accomplished enough, or efficient enough, or good enough parents or children or whatever etc because there is always an impossible idea out there and we are constantly being bombarded with comparison.measurement messages.

    So when we come to church and rate ourselves at a B minus or C plus it is against the background of that’s what we have been doing everywhere else. And as you say, father, the prosperity gospel folks are just tuning into the “you can be an A” internalized success thing. We know what success looks like and Jesus is there to give it to you.

    What a diabolical mess. Mammon indeed.

    Boy how much do we need to be saved – from THAT as much as anything!

    Maybe one of our tasks is to see ourselves whenever we start to do the judging/measuring/rating thing and just refuse to do it – or at least for any category that is not related to the real gospel – and even with gospel related things only with extreme caution on the basis that while measuring and comparing can help us improve, it is also a very slippery slope onto which the snake will latch unless we are very mindful indeed.

    That whole Aleut culture thing is so useful as an alternate picture of a world which is a lot less corrupted. So grateful to Dee and PaulaAZ for this.

    Loved your closing words “our uncritical acceptance of the culture-myths that surround modern success have left us deaf to the words of the gospel and the true good of our soul. If we listened carefully for that true good, we would have less fear of failure and greater confidence in God who called to Himself those who labor and are heavy-laden. His yoke is easy.”

  35. Ziton,

    I find your comments very interesting, especially since I too have thought much about these things.

    In your Comment No. 1, you talk about not identifying oneself with one’s failures. I’ve thought about this a lot too, but so far I can’t see that there is any way not to think, “This is who I am!” If all my failures are to be thought of as one-off failures, what sort of humility can I expect to have? If I am not a failure, then what does Christ redeem me from? One-off failures? If I don’t identify myself with my failures, what stops me from thinking all I need is better planning and more knowledge and I will “make progress” and “do better the next time?” I really can’t figure out a way to avoid identifying myself with my failure.

    In your Comment No. 2, you talk of the B-Minus Problem. I too have found this to be a great stumbling block. You ask how this happens. I have a theory. It happens because we choose to scrape by with a goal oriented approach rather than flourish with a process-oriented approach. What I mean is that we slack off most of the time (in our professional/psychological/spiritual lives – not that these are water-tight compartments; everything we do is part of our spiritual life, isn’t it?) and then sometimes (not always) when we sense we are close to a crash, we “pull an all-nighter” and get something done just to keep us barely afloat. But we never really learn to swim. So we end up being B- students forever.

    Regarding your Comment No. 3: Yes, I see that you need to be able to hold the tension of the two opposites, but HOW? Like many other problems in the spiritual life this too falls into the category of “knowing what to do, but not how to do it.” The problem is that the analogies aren’t helping us in this case. After all, you don’t see a lily pumping iron in the gym, nor do you see a professional boxer (from St. Paul’s analogy) spending all his time gamboling around in a meadow! What we need is an analogy that shows how both extremes may be held in tension simultaneously.

    And as for the Report Card problem in your 4th comment, I’d really like to know what a life lived outside the measurement paradigm looks like in practical terms. If we don’t measure, how do we know when to make adjustments and course-corrections? Perhaps the problem is how we measure and what we measure? Perhaps instead of external results, we measure something internal – psychological & spiritual – for instance, perhaps we measure our ability to sit with discomfort and shame? And anyway, many saints (Catholic ones, at least. I don’t know if any Orthodox saints have done so) have practiced rather meticulous book-keeping in their examinations of conscience.

    I wish someone would write the equivalent of “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” for the spiritual life, showing us the interior life of a saint as he/she performs the mundane tasks of a day from rising to going to bed, in the midst of struggles against thoughts, temptations, and habits.

    Anyway, I’m really relieved to see another person struggling with these issues. Of course, I realise this is a perception fuelled by my own inferiority complexes, but I keep thinking that everyone around me (including most other commenters here!) has their stuff figured out and I’m the only one still clueless and stupid. I feel really anxious that there’s something crucial I’m still not getting in the spiritual life. The coin has not yet dropped for me, and time is passing. I’m really scared I’ll pass a point of time in my life beyond which it will be too late to do anything meaningful before I have things figured out. Of course, this is wrong thinking. I must be mindful of the fact that our spiritual life is hid with Christ in God, and as Fr. Freeman keeps saying, God wars with a hidden hand. But it’s not easy to hold that mindset, and I keep slipping away from it. 🙁

    -NSP

  36. NSP
    What a thoughtful and thought-filled response to Ziton!

    First, I want to throw myself into the mix of those who do not have their “stuff figured out.” I think that, to a large extent, we’re not supposed to. The whole cycle of failure/shame/effort/failure, etc. is driven by the engine of shame. When I succeed at living peaceably with this, it is, as you note, because I have come to a place where I am better able to sit with the discomfort and shame.

    I have joked before that in the years after which I became aware of shame as an issue, and began working at “bearing a little,” I have become a worse priest. What I meant by that is that as I reviewed my life I became increasingly aware of my failures. There are now many things about which I would say, “I’m not very good at that.” Even writing – there are aspects of it that are filled with failure. The difference for me is that I now work harder at sitting and bearing it and less time trying to be what I am not.

    The point of all of this – is God. Why and how can sit with the shame of our failures? We can do this because we sit in the presence of God who uses even our failures to the providential wonder and glory of His creation. The movement is actually away from the self and towards God.

    If there were a “day in the life of a saint” – you would learn very little about the saint at all and much about God.

  37. A thought: NSP, spiritually speaking, our failures are not so much failures as they are wounds. It really is a misplaced focus for us to identify with them. Our culture, of course, seeks to pile them on and then offers the never ending “fix” (so to speak). God heals and offers salvation.

  38. Byron, I think it is right that failure does touch a wound that needs to be healed, but it is not the failure itself that is the wound. The wound is the cry of pain which tells us to identify with the failure. Identifying with the failure is a way to try to find comfort… but it doesn’t work. I kind of “enjoy” thinking I’m no good, at least briefly… but I think it is really the cry of something deep inside me that wants to be acknowledged and comforted.

  39. NSP,

    1. I think it is far better to see humility in ontological terms: created vs Uncreated. It is too easy to conflate shame and humility using the modern understanding of humility; some Fathers did extreme stuff, but that was just a method, not the goal. The goal is always union with Christ. As Pr Stephen often reminds us, He came not to make us “better” (fewer mistakes, fewer failures, etc) but to make us truly live: tho unite the created with The Uncreated. Anything less is a mere moralism and cannot but lead to the other issues regarding measurement, thinking this life is all there is, and so on.

    2. This is also an ontological question and I think Ziton basically answered it: “go beyond the bounds of mere A-ness”. Even if we learned to “swim” in this world it would not do much for us. We would still die, ultimately. Being a software project manager this summer semester (hundreds of pages of docs already and we’ve practically just started—is is taking more than 40 hr/wk and it is just one of my classes and not even my paying job!) I could say a lot about goal vs process orientation. But it really boils down to whether the goal or process is of this world or not. No goal or process of this world will save us: everything requires The Theanthropic Union.

    3. The answer to how is our logos and telos. A flower is being what is was meant to be. A boxer is [hopefully] doing the same. It looks very different externally in each case. But the internals (well, *beyond* the internals) are the same: a submission of the created to The Uncreated. There isn’t a formula—it was manifest in The Incarnation and we continually struggle to make it present in our own selves; the struggle often looks a lot like hesychasm!

    4. And all of those lead into getting away from measurement. We’re not talking about measuring one created thing to another created thing. I do that all the time in software development: quantitatively, qualitatively, etc. But in Orthodoxy, measurement is kind of like the Law: it is good, but it is something that we fall back on when we’ve “missed” Grace. I concur with what Pr Stephen said: seeing the inner life of a saint might teach us very little about them. But I would say we might miss God, too, because we’re looking for the wrong things.

    If we looked inside a saint for a day, we might see how the saint is not being led by their emotions, their mind, or any other created faculty. It wouldn’t make sense to us. We might actually see very little and wonder if they’re dull, “slow”, or something else. It might seem boring, perhaps even hellish. Yet they are truly alive in Christ, as all those faculties are in submission to The Divine, not arguing and jostling and working among themselves as we experience but instead “listening” and receiving direct revelation moment by moment. It cannot be measured. Indeed, numerous saints speak about realizing only when this state leaves them (or rather they leave it) and they return to the fallen way of life with its measurements, inner dialogs, and so forth.

    It is never too late: every moment provides a point of contact with Christ. And He makes use of them, even in a hidden manner, when we do not. We keep trying to die to all the things of this world—the judgments, measurements, ideas, goals, processes, and everything—and be guided just a little by The Uncreated Trinity in a way that surpasses all that our human nature is capable of in even its “greatest” moment.

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