Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).
As the Olympic Games end and a new academic year begins, we celebrate the victories of amazing athletes and dream of our children’s successes. But if we seek wisdom, we mine stories of failure to find the real gold.
Yes, failure invites us to learn from our mistakes. Then perhaps we will do better next time.
But take if from a college counselor: Our children’s generation has greater difficulty remembering than previous generations that there will be a next time. For beyond the marketing class project or P-Chem test, they see two roads diverge. A stellar grade leads down the Yellow Brick Road. Anything less leads off the face of a flat earth.
They learned this dread of failure from us.
As a child football player, I heard over and over the mantra popularized by Packers coach Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Not much room for learning there.
The heat of American competition rises continually, and with it, economic and status anxiety. As our highest childhood aspirations slip away, we settle for a good-enough career and bigger-than-necessary house and live those dreams through our children. So we drive them to soccer practice, dance, piano lessons, and Tae Kwon Do, and they escape into their smart phones whenever they can.
We never feel like we do enough for them. They never feel like they do enough for us. Our dreams weigh on their shoulders. Our debts make them feel guilty about going to college. They feel they must make nothing less than A’s to keep from disappointing us and breaking us at the bank.
Richard Rohr wrote a wonderful book called Falling Upward for people at mid-life. Borrowing much from Carl Jung, Rohr contends that we spend the first half of life competing and building up our sense of competence to take on our dreams. But at midlife, we face overt or covert failure in one way or another. Nobody can live up to those early aspirations.
How we handle failure at that critical juncture determines whether we grow spiritually or stagnate in perpetual adolescence.
For failure invites us to break free from the straitjacket of ego and find our true selves. The ones good parents or parent-figures loved no matter our grade in precalculus or our performance in the beauty pageant. The ones God loved before our parents conceived us.
Just before fall semester at Berry College, my Associate Director of Counseling, Terri Cordle, and I train a small group of students called Peer Educators. They provide educational programs to promote safe and effective lifestyle choices among their peers. That includes choices for resilience. This year, they want to help their peers to face failure effectively.
We can teach this by telling about greats like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and J.K. Rowling who overcame multiple failures on the road to greatness. Arguably, failures mark the paths of all who achieve greatness.
But the story of living and learning through failure that will boost your children most is yours. And you need not achieve greatness in the public eye to be great in theirs.