Failure lands somewhere on the spectrum of death.
Which makes sense, because failure is endeavoring to bring something to life – an idea, a project, a hope – and resulting in something other than life, i.e. death.
Yesterday, I invited our community at Open Door to consider risk, failure, experiment, and practice as deeply embedded parts of our formative journey of faith. Luke 9 paints this picture well in the life of Jesus and his followers – they are sent out to do the things Jesus did and along with some success, they also continue to experience failure. Being called, sent out, saved, etc. does not guarantee success – quite the opposite, it seems.
Few things have painted a better picture of this for me than Patti Smith’s performance at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony honoring Bob Dylan as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The opening chords of the song were introduced, and I heard myself singing. The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them. From the corner of my eye, I could see the the huge boom stand of the television camera, and all the dignitaries upon the stage and the people beyond. Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.
This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me. I was obliged to stop and ask pardon and then attempt again while in this state and sang with all my being, yet still stumbling. It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words “I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains,” and ends with the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.
I’m struck by Smith’s phrasing of this “strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.”
While failure is on the spectrum of death, there is something about moving through the experience of failure with integrity, trust, and hope that allows us to truly live.
May we learn to fail well so that we may live truly.