FDo you ever experience a fear of failure? I know I do!
Sometimes it’s a stew of anxiety, simmering throughout the day. Other times it’s a sudden eruption of panic or peevishness amidst what had seemed a moment of calm. When I pay attention and reflect, I can see that there is a significant fear of failure. It doesn’t drive or dominate me nearly as much as it used to, but it still shows up.
I already shared with you some highlights of Fr. Jacques Philippe’s recent book Priestly Fatherhood. Perhaps his greatest insight for us all (priests and laity alike) is when he connects our fear of failure with the rift in our childlike trust in God as a fierce and tender Father. God is a Father who will unfailingly provide for our needs. He will never reject or abandon us. But in our woundedness it often doesn’t feel that way! From the very beginning of human history, the evil one has been tirelessly at work to rupture our relationships – with God the Father, with each other, and with ourselves. Shame is the devil’s single greatest weapon. Through the lies of shame, he enticed Adam and Eve to hide from God and to protect themselves from each other.
I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It’s not inherently evil (after all, the devil can’t create!). Shame actually helps us and many other mammals to survive. If they get cut off from their pack, they will die. If we humans are on the verge of a rupture of communion, shame will speak up! Unfortunately, that shame signal is so easily exploited by anyone who would manipulate (the devil being chief among them!). We are created for the purpose of sharing intimately in joyful communion. We are meant to belong and to experience that safe connection with the Father and with each other. Shame blares its alarm whenever there is a threat of rupture. It does indeed feel like a matter of life or death!
The problem is that what initially serves our survival ultimately leads us into a wasteland of isolation and ungodly self-protection. Our survival becomes exhausting! As Fr. Philippe puts it, modern man, no longer looking to God as a Father, is “condemned to success.” There is no room for failure because there is no longer a loving Father there to give us protection, freedom, encouragement, and space to keep learning and growing from our mistakes.
How do you handle it when you fail? Or when others around you fail? Are you both able to go closer to the failure and talk about it? Why or why not?
When I feel like I have failed or am about to fail, I have a tendency power up or withdraw, depending on the situation. Both are ways of distancing my shame from the other person. Both isolate rather than heal and repair.
If I listen attentively and notice in God’s presence, there are two main messages to my shame. It either warns me against being seen and exposed as a failure, or it warns me that others will flee from me and leave me alone to face it all. When both show up, it can be a challenging push-pull in relationships – inviting others to come closer, and then pushing them back away when they get too close. In both cases, it’s not so much a conscious strategy as an instinctive reaction. In both cases there is an ongoing invitation to trust God the Father and begin maturing as I abide in healthy and meaningful relationships.
Fear of failure was familiar to the twelve apostles. Just think of how they handled the Passion of Jesus. When Peter first heard of it, he swiftly forbade his Lord to speak any further of it – prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Nor did Peter have it figured out during Holy Week! He, at least, stays close(ish) to Jesus – rather than running and fleeing like the others. But he denies him three times. When Jesus begins surprising each of them on Easter Sunday, they are downcast, discouraged, and afraid. They were not yet ready to handle the “failure” of the Cross.
If God is not a loving Father who is faithful and true to his promises, then the Cross is indeed both a scandal and utter foolishness. Jesus willingly faced the Cross – though not without sweating blood first and begging the Father for another option! How did he do it? Ultimately, Jesus was secure in his identity as the beloved Son of the Father. He trusted his Father’s promise of Resurrection. The “failure” of the Cross was ultimately a great victory. It was truly “Good” Friday as Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. The very moment in which the evil one grasped at his triumph was a singular moment of human love and trust. It was the moment in which Jesus invested meaning and hope into what otherwise truly would be a hopeless and miserable human existence following the Fall.
Jesus is Lord and Savior and Messiah – not in a way that erases human sin or suffering, but in a way that transforms it. He opens up a healing path for us. When he says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is not saying “Get out of my sight!” Rather, he is inviting Peter (and us) to take up our Cross and follow him.
For us who are redeemed by his blood and in the process of being restored and sanctified, taking up our Cross and Jesus often means failing and learning, failing and growing, failing and repairing. As Winston Churchill once put it, “Success in not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Will you and I have the courage to fail? Will we allow space for failure – in ourselves, in our families, in our workplaces, and in our church communities? Will we meet failure with both tenderness and truth-telling? In the person of Jesus, we see that God is clearly drawn towards our failure and our littleness. He enters into it, neither shaming us nor excusing us. He helps us to trust and to grow. May we receive that gift and learn to do the same!