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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In Praise of Defeat

Let’s be clear—being laid off or fired from work stinks. So does bombing a test, failing a relationship, and screwing up with your children. I feel particularly in touch with that last one lately, but have tasted at least pieces of all of the above. They don’t taste good.

With that in mind, I was struck by this from Barbara Brown Taylor:

"Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces." Taylor, p.78 An Altar in the World
Failure stings. I would no more romanticize it than I would a root canal. But Taylor’s words jarred me with their truth. There is such a thing as the "spiritual fruits of failure". There are things that can only be discovered when we are lost.

A failure in a past job led me to the work I have now. A shipwrecked relationship was the thing that finally got me into counseling, something I had been avoiding for years. A back injury (which is a sort of failure) required that I learn yoga, a discipline that has helped my body and spirit.

But the biggest fruit of failure may have something to do with the last line of Taylor’s quote. She is right in that most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces when we fail. But the opposite is also true—sharing our failures with others can deepen relationships. How often have I felt the collective depth of a community increase as one person and then another is willing to talk about something that is not going well in their life. Far from depressing, this kind of ‘failure sharing’ is usually accompanied by laughter and hope. When the demons and fears are out on the table, they lose some of their power.

Rilke says this in his poem The Man Watching:

"Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, By constantly greater beings."

I have never praised failure when I was hip-deep in it. In hindsight, it is a different matter altogether.


  1. Each year around the anniversary of my dad's death 25 years ago I wonder if I should share something at church. Of all places you'd think that would be the one place I would not hesitate. But I get embarrassed by sharing sometimes because so many others have immediate issues and mine is so old and something I just deal with.

    Anyway, last year I finally shared during the prayers of the people. I shared that I often don't know if I should be happy about the memories or sad for the loss. Was one inappropriate or not placing the right respect on the issue. I shared that I had decided that I would choose the happy memories and be glad for them.

    After the serrvice a few people came up to me and shared with me similar thoughts and feelings. Sharing this with others has helped me deal with it. No, it's still there in a very real way, but I was reminded that I'm not alone. The demons are on the table, but others are there with me.

  2. Oh, yes! So true and I am grateful for your well-written reminder. Blessings, Shirley

  3. My recent job loss and the fruits of failure for me have produced 1) a reduced sense of arrogance, and 2) a fuller awareness that we're all broken. I've learned for the first time--and at the age of 40, no less--that the world doesn't actually owe me anything after all. Go figure! I would not have fully embraced these fruits without the helpful encouragement of Lumunos. Blessings to Doug and the crew as vessels for grace.

  4. It has taken me this long to be able to share failure in the economic area as that was my degree at school and by growing up and later living in New Jersey - the heart of commerce among other things - this was an easy but shallow way to measure "who I was".

    Now in Pittsburgh, status seems to have a different currency, and contributing to this city and helping to keep things together here is worth more than driving a SAAB.

    I wonder as I write this whether I am too influenced by my surroundings and if I will go back to the old me if I move out of Pittsburgh and back to a more commercial society.

  5. I so agree that there are fruits of failure. I recently lost my job, and it has made me face up to some personal and financial issues that have long dogged me. It is painful, and yet I have faith that my spirit and integrity will be stronger when I move forward in this "darker" area of my soul. Thank you for the great blog.

  6. Thank you, Doug--I am still knocking about, being stripped of all my vanities and bravado, realizing how little I actually NEED to get by. I am now without car as well as income, so even my movement is growing more limited. On the other hand, I am able to concentrate on the spiritual side of my life as I never have before. I am still a slacker with it, but more involved than I ever have been in the past. Thanks to my mother, to Lumunos, and my 12 step group, I am growing spiritually (kicking and screaming, but growing just the same!)Once every two weeks I will stray, putting my faith in the lottery rather than my higher power, but the next day I am back, poorer and cranky, but remembering where real hope comes from--my relationship with God. My love to you all, Cam