So, You Failed?

The problem is not failing but what we do about it

Ideas for essays are sometimes like grace: they come from the most unexpected places. Today’s comes from Facebook, in a post by Scott Hahn about failure. Hahn posted a passage from St. Josemaría Escrivà’s rich book of spiritual aphorisms, The Way. The excerpt (no. 405) deals specifically with failure.

“So you have failed? You — be convinced of it — cannot fail. You haven’t failed; you have gained experience. On you go!”

So, you failed. We have all had that experience. The problem is not failing but what we do about it.

St. Josemaría gives us a bold perspective: you cannot fail. You cannot fail unless you want to fail.

People get bent out of shape about temptation. Temptations are not sins. The question is what we do with them. Do we exercise our wills – our spiritual muscle – to resist? Or do we let ourselves go and indulge? If we have made an honest effort to resist, there may be factors which limit our responsibility. Fear, force, habit – they all play into our moral responsibility, something we need to leave to God.

I’m not making excuses for people; respect for human dignity means that the moralist should not play Lamb of God and “take away the sins of the world.” But even when we fail, even when that failure implicates our moral responsibility, the question is: So?

Do we learn from failure? St. Josemaría says “you have gained experience.” Even if that experience is only an awareness of your weakness and limitations, the way evil can get at you, that can be a valuable lesson if taken to heart. Do we move on from failure? Do we pick ourselves up and try to do better? A great spiritual danger lies in fixating on the past rather than the future. Although there is a lot of talk about AI, we are not computers. There are no reset buttons. What is done is done.

The French poet Charles Péguy, speaking in the voice of God the Father, observed that some people have a tendency to examine their conscience at the end of the day to ruminate over what they have done wrong. Péguy offers a sober perspective: yes, it was wrong and you should not have done it when you still had the chance not to do it. But what is now done cannot be undone. The day has been lived, for good or ill; it cannot and should not be relived. Do differently tomorrow.

A sin is a sin to the degree we embrace it. A failure may be a sin, but one where our will is not fully engaged. So, yes, you failed. You may have even sinned. Now what? To paraphrase Hamlet, that — what you are going to do, not what you have done — is the question. And, as St. Josemaría concludes: “On you go!”

Of course, to go on means to turn to God, because when we sin we impair or even deprive ourselves of the resources we need to resist sin. But God is not chary with His grace, which is why St. Paul warns us to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). What you need to fear is not God, who is eminently faithful, but the fickleness of your own heart. And the Devil certainly wants you to fixate both on the past and on your fickleness, because both tend to paralyze progress, which is moving towards God (and away from the devil).

That is a particularly Advent temptation: the paralysis that leaves us in the comfortable rut of mediocrity (or worse), which ultimately is not so much “comfortable” as simply familiar.

When I read St. Josemaría on failure, I was also reminded of a scene in the film Elizabethtown. Drew Baylor is kicking himself, even in the middle of his father’s funeral, because the shoe he designed had a flaw that cost his company nearly a billion dollars and most likely his job. Claire Colburn, the stewardess who befriends him, wants to change the way he sees things. It’s clear they could become more than friends, but Drew cannot move past his failure. As she is about to take leave of him, Claire confronts his blockage, to which he insists his failure is “a little bit bigger than you and me.” The ultimate question is: is it? Because, as Claire rightly observes, “this is mostly about a shoe” and, ultimately, people are more important than things.  Watch [here] her wonderful critique of failure:

“So, you failed!”

“You don’t get it.”

“Alright, you really failed. You failed, you failed, you failed, you failed. You failed, you failed, you failed, you failed, you failed, you failed, you failed, you failed, you failed… you failed. You think I care about that? I do understand. You’re an artist, man. Your job is to break through barriers, not accept blame and bow and say, ‘O thank you, I’m a loser, I’ll go away now. Oh, Phil’s mean to me, wah, wah, wah, so what? …. You want to be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make ‘em wonder why you’re still smiling! That’s true greatness to me.”

God wants us to be great. That means picking up, no matter how many times we fall, brushing the dust off the seat of our pants, and trying again. Failure is not the fall as much as the refusing to rise.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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