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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Making Room for Failure

Recently, I have read to the end of Krista Tippett’s wonderful book, Becoming Wise.  Because the nature of the book is a series of interviews and encounters with people of all walks of life, Tippett’s book is a great opportunity to read a little and ponder a lot.  I have worked very slowly through the entire book.  And I am tempted to turn around and begin reading it again.  It is one of those books I feel I could get even more by reading it a second time. 
   
Her last chapter is on “Hope.”  Since I also have written a couple books that deal with the virtues, I have thought about and written about hope.  Reading her longish chapter makes me wish I had her book before I wrote my own chapters on hope.  Again part of the power of her work is the interview process, which elicits some amazing thoughts from her friends and contacts.  To these gems Tippett adds her own reflection based on her own interesting life.  And to that I now try to add some thoughts of my own.
   
In one particular vignette, Tippett talks about visiting with the mayor, chief of police and a collection of people from all walks of life in Louisville, KY.  She tells us the newly elected mayor “wanted Louisville to become a city of compassion, through and through in granular ways that would challenge their civic life together at every level.”  A number of interesting things emerge in the time together.
   
But one learning thing surpassed all others in importance.  Tippett notes, “Most stunning of all is the hard-won sense of trust in that room: of fears calmed, and vulnerabilities laid bare and safe to be so.”  I was not surprised that trust emerged as the crucial achievement.  That would be the same thing my own research shows.  Without trust, the whole thing would have come apart.  Trust is crucial.  This is true wherever groups have to work together---from business to athletics and all things in between.
   
One of the things I know is always true.  When trust is the issue, vulnerability is introduced into the picture.  If I can control someone, then I don’t have to worry about trust.  I am not vulnerable.  But if I have to trust, then vulnerability inevitably is brought into the picture.  Trust is an exercise in being vulnerable.  Tippett observes the same thing and adds an important piece.  She recognizes that trust and vulnerability exposes people to one more phenomenon, namely, failure. 
   
Let’s hear what Tippett has to say.  “Now, from business to education to psychology, we are remembering that failure has always been a part of every human story of success.  I’d extend that in more meaningful and less triumphalist terms: failure and vulnerability are the very elements of spiritual growth and personal wisdom.”  There are some reassuring things in these words from Tippett and there are some unnerving words.  The reassuring thing for me is the optimism that spiritual growth and wisdom are not only possible, but very likely for those of us who engage the process.  For me personally, the engagement is with the God in Whom I believe. 
   
Belief (or faith, as I prefer) is never stagnant.  It is a process---a process that we have to continue, to pursue and in which we persist.  The growth comes from and through the process.  And I am tempted to say the wisdom we acquire comes as a result of staying in the process of spiritual growth.  Wisdom is acquired as a by-product of learning, experiencing and, often, failing.  And that brings us back to Tippett’s quotation.
   
Failure and vulnerability are intrinsic to spiritual growth and wisdom.  I think we all know this at some level.  But in my case, sadly I believe I tried to avoid it or deny it.  I would have preferred not to be vulnerable and I certainly did not want to fail.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I realized the high price we pay for approaching life this way.  It means we either try to control everything, so everything will come out just right.  Of course, life is simply not like this.  So you are bound to fail!  Or the other hand, I am sure it meant I was unwilling to risk enough to get really good things from life.  If we don’t want to be vulnerable or chance that we might fail, then we become risk-averse.  And that usually means we condemn ourselves to superficial, pretend-kind of lives.
   
Avoiding vulnerability and being risk-averse means we don’t really get to know God or other people.  Relationships are polite, but never passionate or powerful.  To choose this way of life is a choice of safety instead of spirituality.  Fortunately, I think I have learned a few things.  I now realize what Tippett has realized.  Vulnerability and failure are linked to spiritual growth and wisdom.  This is especially true in the most profound of human relationships, i.e. love.  And I believe it is true in our relationship with God. 
   
In order to love God or anybody else, we must make room for failure---or at least the possibility of failing.  And this means being willing to be vulnerable.  And it means allowing for the fact that we may fail.  Trust may not work.  But if we don’t trust, then really nothing of any consequence is possible.  We will live, flat, superficial lives. 
   
I opt for more.  I keep making room for failure.

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