I have spent the past few months wrestling with the idea of failure. What are the full consequences of failing? How does God see my failures? How ought the gospel upend my own view of failure – for myself and for others?
At the end of this summer, my email signature will read “Mandy Rodgers-Gates, M.T.S., Th.M.” not “Mandy Rodgers-Gates, Th.D.” as I had planned. Just one letter different, but there is a whole lot of story bound up in that one letter.
Failure. Not achieving what one set out to achieve. Not reaching the standard that has been set for a given activity or goal.
By this definition, failure describes the end of this part of my academic journey.
But then…I have also felt a certain peace about the whole situation. I have sensed a kind of “rightness” to it.
And – as my husband reminded me in a recent conversation – there are ways in which I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish: I’ve learned and grown and gained amazing teaching experience. I’ve become a teacher and discerned more clearly my vocation. I have a decent-paying job (with benefits!) that I find fulfilling, with colleagues that I adore.
So… in some ways I have not failed. I have done all of the learning I set out to do; I just won’t have the official degree attached to it.
But I can’t shake the feeling that to frame it this way is, in some sense, “cheating.” Like, in the middle of the game, after it’s already well under way, I’ve changed the rules and said, “See, I actually WON!”
Also, I feel the need to embrace this failure as failure exactly because our society is so resistant to accepting failure as a part of life and owning failure without shame. Oh sure, we’re good at paying lip service to embracing failure. We like the quotes from successful people that say things like, “There is no failure except in no longer trying.” But feel-good quotes like these simply promote the idea that failure is a mere detour on the way to reaching your true goal… success! Failure is just taking the scenic route. But you still get to your destination in the end.
And in the real world, when we’re not quoting famous people, we resist failure with every fiber of our being: we fear failure in our jobs and relationships; we judge others negatively for perceived failures; and we communicate to our kids both implicitly and explicitly that failing – at school, at work, at sports – is one of the worst things that can happen.
In my own life failure has been a disruption at different points, and not a welcome one. The past few years have been most difficult when I have felt that I have failed as a parent – which has often been tied up with a sense that my children have failed in some way or another. Accepting failure in those situations has been the only path for moving forward with my life, the only way to avoid being paralyzed. Helping my kids move on from failure has helped me step back from the moment I am in and take a longer view. I have also been challenged to see my kids for who they really are, rather than who I think I want them to be or who society says they should be.
Back in January, as I began anticipating this end to my graduate school journey, I had a moment of encounter with God during a Zoom worship service with our church. At the risk of over-spiritualizing or drawing false analogies, I share here what the Spirit reminded me of: the cross disrupts our conventional views of success and failure. God’s ultimate victory looked from the outside like an utter failure. An event that looked by all the world’s standards like the ultimate failure is precisely the event where we meet God. And this theme – encountering God in unexpected places and moments, in the broken parts of our lives and in broken people – that theme is woven throughout Scripture.
I’m still working out the full implications of what this ought to mean in my own life or in my children’s lives. But I know it at least means this: I can trust God with my failures.
And if I can’t trust God with my failures, what am I even doing? What is the point of following Jesus Christ at all, if it doesn’t at least mean this?
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was talking to God about my present and about what I want my future to be: What do I really want? What am I aiming for? What would – or at least *could* – make me happy? And then the words “a hidden, quiet life” popped into my head.
“A hidden, quiet life.”
This was not the answer I was expecting, but the minute it came to me, I knew it to be true. And I began to shed tears of relief. I don’t want a busy life. I don’t want a loud life. I don’t want a public-facing, put-yourself-out-there, you-better-be-networking kind of life. The kind of life that academia usually demands.
This relief and the recognition of the kind of life I want to lead, the kind of life that will allow me to truly give in the ways God wants me to give, goes hand in hand with acknowledging other things that are not so fun to recognize. Part of my journey these past few years – and now, in this moment of failure – has been to accept certain realities about myself. Realities that used to cause me shame.
Realities like . . .
I can’t handle the same amount of THINGS in my life that other people can handle. (All the THINGS!)
My creativity/productivity is dependent on having a certain amount of emotional and mental space in my life.
I’m really good at distilling complex ideas and communicating them in clear ways to others (read: teaching), and I’m less good at generating complex, original ideas and communicating them in ways that spark the interest of other scholars (read: finishing a dissertation).
And so I’m accepting failure, along with all of the gifts. Gifts like . . a job that I love, a healthy and fun marriage, open and vulnerable relationships with my kids, summers to do the kind of writing I find life-giving, time for friendships.
But the hardest thing about failure, sometimes, is the people who you worry will be disappointed. *I* can accept my failure. I know the messy path that got me here and the hope the future holds. But can the people who know me and love me accept it?
That question too is one I am entrusting to the good God who has promised that nothing – “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” – nothing can separate us from the love God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
Not even failure.