Saturday, October 4, 2014

Failing at Life

It is the little failures that get to you, not the spectacular ones. With a spectacular fail you can take comfort in the fact of having been, at least briefly, spectacular. You may not have achieved what you set out to achieve, but at least you tried where most others would not have.

No, what gets to you is the little failures, repeated every day, day after day after day. Sometimes it is someone else’s fault, like not getting to work on time because the idiot in front of you couldn’t drive. Sometimes it is your own fault, like when I pound the steering wheel and call the idiot in front of me an idiot for not knowing how to drive. I forget the people I have cut off, the unsignalled lefts I have taken, the green lights I have held up because I was busy changing the song on my iPhone. Little failures, like not getting all of the errands finished, or going to store for ingredients and coming home having forgotten one small but essential thing that you absolutely must have; or big failures, like forgetting about the Eucharistic fast and not being able to receive Communion because you just had to have that last cookie before you walked out the door.

There is nothing great about these. They don’t even merit an “epic fail, bro!” None is life-shattering but each one chips away a little bit at your self-confidence. If I can’t even get the kids into the car and to school on time, what makes me think I could succeed at volunteering for a charity? Or writing a novel? Or getting in shape? Or learning to play the piano? Are you serious? I can barely get my carcass out of bed some mornings.

And it doesn’t seem fair, because you know, and I know, that we really are trying. Not like Bubba from highschool who still lives in his mom’s basement at 32 years old, works the same job at the car wash, and in all that time has not attempted anything more challenging than Final Fantasy XXIV: The Return of Zombie Aerith. Bubba is doing fine. Bubba has no problems. One might think that he may actually have figured this life thing out. Just don’t try anything you aren’t already good at and you will never fail.

But in our better moments we don’t want to be like Bubba. We have made enough progress to know that we at least want to do something worthwhile with our lives. We love some good, or are committed to a family or some worthy project, and we are sacrificing to achieve it. Would a little success be too much to ask for, Lord? Some support, maybe?

But I will tell you a secret, although you may not believe me.

The most valuable coin in the spiritual life is failure.

I know you think I am crazy, but it is true (both that failure is valuable and that I am crazy). God draws us up off the couch by proposing some good to us. Perhaps you fall in love with a woman. Perhaps you have a child. Perhaps you have a mystical vision of the poem that will express the inexpressible. You want to be a good and holy husband. You want to be a wise, loving (and absolutely perfect) parent. You want to be a divine poet. The painful truth is that success was never the point.

When God proposes the dream to us, we must not imagine that He is saying, “If you are a good boy and you work really hard, you can do anything you set your mind to. You just have to believe in yourself.” Really He is just saying, “Here is a faint shadow of just the tiniest corner of a fraction of my Being. Will you pursue me in that vision?” So we pursue. The vision and desire for success in pursuing that vision are necessary first steps. Even self-confidence can be a step.

But in reality, whatever we may imagine, we do not pursue in order to succeed, we pursue in
order to fail. The harder we pursue, the more quickly and surely we will fail, and to a certain extent the sooner and harder the better. That was the point all along. I said above that these failures are not life shattering, but they chip away at our self-confidence.

That is exactly the point.

God wants to destroy our self-confidence, because as long as we trust in ourselves we can never be saved. Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, in, “The Spiritual Combat,” opens Chapter II, the initial chapter on the Way of Perfection with this stern warning:

“Distrust of self is so absolutely requisite in the spiritual combat that without this virtue we cannot expect to defeat our weakest passion, much less gain a complete victory. This important truth should be deeply imbedded in our hearts; for although in ourselves we are nothing, we are too apt to overestimate our own abilities and to conclude falsely that we are of some importance. This vice springs from the corruption of our nature. But the more natural a thing is, the more difficult it is to be discovered.”

 This is an echo of the Apostle Paul

“It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Romans 7:13-15, 24-25.

These are not the words of a man who is succeeding at everything he tries. He is failing, and acutely aware of his failure. This is the same man who writes:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the
revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10.

Or to quote C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity): “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.” The better you try to be and the harder you try to be that way, the sooner you will have opportunity to learn how far short you fall.

That is the reason God asks us to try. Not because He wants us to "be good or else," but because He wants us to want to be good, to try to be good, and to fail so that we realize that we cannot be good. Then, and not before, we will be humbled enough to ask Him to help us, to do it for us. 
We will see that our perfection is His work, not ours, we are only called to be willing participants. 

This is not to say that our goal is to be neurotic, or to lack all ability to try. That is why destroying self-trust is the second step, and not the last. Distrust in ourselves opens the door to trust in God. Unless we take that next step and trust in Him, destroying self trust would be worse than useless.

There is more to this, much, much more, but this blog is already too long so maybe another time.

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