David Turnbull was a physicist who taught at Harvard for many years. In his retirement and as professor emeritus he wrote his autobiography…he lived 92 years. Near the end of his memoir he summarized his beliefs, attributing them to what he had learned growing up on a farm.
“I am impressed ever more deeply by the natural order, which seems remarkable and awesome. It can be described by science, but its existence and origin are still a great mystery which seems beyond our capabilities to resolve. For me it is not necessary to accept some metaphysical solution of this mystery; it is enough that the order exists and is esthetically pleasing.”
Indeed, it is enough ‘that the order exists and is esthetically pleasing.’
Like the trees outside our sanctuary windows and the occasional squirrel or deer we see, we, too, are part of the natural order – remarkable and awesome. May our time together today be esthetically pleasing, encouraging our next steps on this shared journey.
Sermon: The Fine Art of Failure
As I was preparing this sermon on ‘the fine art of failure,’ the mother of a six-year old told me that they had been at the family bingo night and her son was so upset because he didn’t win any of the bingo games. She said he was crying and complaining, and I caught myself smiling and I said, “Oh, good.” Then I explained that this was just what he needed – to build a little tolerance for failure. Bingo!
Journalist John Carroll wrote an essay for the PBS series ‘This I Believe.’ He says:
“Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is failure. I believe in the power of failure.
“Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.
“Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as “she who has broken many pots.” If you’ve spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their failures gave them.
“I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don’t set out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to the others, sometimes spectacularly so.
“I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I’ve never done before, something I’m not even sure can be done.
“My younger daughter is a trapeze artist. She spent three years putting together an act. She did it successfully for years with the Cirque du Soleil. There was no reason for her to change the act — but she did anyway. She said she was no longer learning anything new and she was bored; and if she was bored, there was no point in subjecting her body to all that stress. So she changed the act. She risked failure and profound public embarrassment in order to feed her soul. And if she can do that 15 feet in the air, we all should be able to do it.
“My granddaughter is a perfectionist, probably too much of one. She will feel her failures, and I will want to comfort her. But I will also, I hope, remind her of what she learned, and how she can do whatever it is better next time. I probably won’t tell her that failure is a good thing, because that’s not a lesson you can learn when you’re five. I hope I can tell her, though, that it’s not the end of the world. Indeed, with luck, it is the beginning.”
We’re in the midst of the winter Olympics. Any athlete who makes it all the way to the games has already succeeded, whether or not they win a medal.
Next week is the Academy Awards. You don’t have to win the Oscar, you can be nominated for one and you’ve succeeded. They advertise your next film as starring ‘Academy Award nominee’ Gabourey Sidibe. (Alfred Hitchcock was nominated many times, but never ‘won’ the Oscar!)
Lincoln, our country’s most popular president, endured many failures before being elected President. In 1843 he was defeated for nomination for Congress; in 1854 he was defeated for U.S. Senate; in 1856 he was defeated for nomination for Vice President; and in 1858 he was again defeated for U.S. Senate, then in 1860 he was elected president.
Thomas Edison’s failures are legendary. It took him approximately 10,000 experiments to invent the perfect set-up for the electric light bulb – that’s 9,999 failures. It was a long, slow learning curve. Nobody had done it before. He couldn’t read a book about it. He simply had to plug away, failing and learning, then succeeding.
Edison understood the profound secret – the deep truth – that to succeed you have to be willing to fail and then to fail again. Every failure provided the information he needed to make the corrections that led him to eventual success.
Two cheers for the fine art of failure.
JK Rowling became a very successful writer. It took awhile, and she talked about it as commencement speaker last year at Harvard. She said, in part:
“The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.
“Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.
“You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock.” She spoke about her struggles, through poverty and so forth, then she said, “What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.”
“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”
In Biblical mythology there are lots of failures. Look at poor old Adam and Eve. As the world’s first parents they were nothing to write home about – their first-born, Cain, in a fit of jealousy over God’s favor, killed their second-born, Abel. So, what did they do? They started over again with a third son, Seth, who was such a success that his lineage is traced to Noah, and from him to King David and finally all the way to Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus, his life came to an ignominious end on the cross. His success, as it were, came after his death from the biographer, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and from Paul, who began his career by persecuting Jesus.
Was Jesus a failure? George Bernard Shaw put it this way, “This man Jesus has not been a failure yet, for nobody has been sane enough to try his way…he taught that evel should not be countered by worse evil but by good; that revenge and punishment only duplicate wrong; that we should conceive God not as an irascible and vindictive tyrant, but as an affectionate Father.”
Shaw said, “By every argument, legal, political, religious, customary and polite, he was the most complete enemy of society ever brought to the bar. It can be argued that Christianity died on the cross with him.”
The Biblical account of Jesus is in small part historical and biographical, but in large part it is mythological, but a good myth reveals the deeper truths about what it means to be human, and being human has a lot to do with failure, and becoming a person has a lot to do with how we handle our failures.
Two cheers for the fine art of failure! One for trying, and one for enduring – for carrying on, as exemplified by all those spectacular skiing falls and falls on the figure-skating ice, with athletes who get up and keep going!
Don’t get me wrong: failure isn’t wonderful. It doesn’t always contribute something to the development of your character. Sometimes it’s simply discouraging, debilitating and depressing.
Some failures are devastating – they’re painfully humiliating – they just need to be endured.
Divorce is a good example. We marry and assume we’ll stay married to that person for ‘as long as we both shall live.’
Divorce represents a failure, of sorts, of course. But the marriage had its successes; children, perhaps, and growth toward a more mature understanding of life. Our failures don’t guarantee that we’ll grow into a more mature understanding of life – it depends on how you handle it.
For example, there is such a thing as a ‘good divorce,’ as distinguished from a terribly destructive divorce. We who divorce determine the extent we will contribute to a good, or bad divorce.
The point here is simple: like Lincoln and Edison, we need to endure and learn from our failures. But along comes Mark Twain who reminds us that though we should learn from experience we should not learn more from an experience than was in it.
To illustrate his point Mark Twain tells the story of a cat who jumps on a hot stove—he’ll never jump on a hot stove again. The problem is that he won’t jump on a cold stove, either – he learned more from the experience than was in it.
Clearly, we need a tolerance for our own failures, including the little built-in failures we call our faults or flaws.
Last week I read Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, Sarah, just before he lost his life in the battle of Bull Run he wrote: (Sarah, please) “Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.”
In contradistinction to the famous line in the movie, love means having to say you’re sorry and to be able to back up the apology with a change in the kind of behavior that led to the apology.
We who are parents grandparents, like John Carroll whose essay from the ‘this I believe’ series I quoted, want our kids to win, we hope they will win, but we also know that they need to learn how to deal with failure, and there’s only one way to do that, and it’s not pretty! But it’s necessary.
Some years ago I officiated at the funeral of a man in his 40’s who knew nothing but success. He had three ivy-league diplomas hanging on his wall, and a multi-million dollar bank account from a very successful business. He took his life, however, because he was being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for a possible violation of interstate commerce.
He had no experience with or tolerance for personal failure.
I’m reminded of the boy in the bubble, David Vetter, who was born with a rare genetic disease now known as severe combined immune deficiency syndrome (SCIDS). He spent most of his twelve years at Texas Children’s Hospital in a germ-free, sterile environment – a plastic bubble, because he his immune system wasn’t working – he had no tolerance for germs.
We need to develop a tolerance for failure.
There’s a wise old proverb that says, “Most people wouldn’t be so unhappy if they didn’t have such an exaggerated idea of other people’s happiness.”
Other people’s successes are on display – the physician’s diploma hangs on the wall for all to see. His failures, small or great, are kept hidden in a vault in the basement – the vault and basement are metaphors for the embarrassing secrets we all have, ‘down there where the spirit meets the bone.’
Now, say to thyself, all my failure are my own, they are part of me; if there’s any good thing I can do for myself, for my family, friends and the world, let me turn those faults and failures into paths to a deeper level of compassion, understanding and wisdom. So may it be!
rain or hail, e e cummings
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
:sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weazel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into what
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down.