“I have no fear at all of failing,” he told me calmly, I remember.  I made no reply, I could think of nothing that such a person would need or care to hear.  That kind of self-confidence was beyond me.  But then he said, “I don't mean that I expect to succeed; in fact I expect to fail, but I have no fear of failing.” 

This, of course, put an entirely different complexion on it.  He was talking about a complicated move in the internal adjustment of his family.  It strikes me now that his attitude was the firmest of all foundations for fearlessness.  If I feel I must always succeed I will always be afraid of failure. I have noticed, for example, that teenage boys in their strutting season are the most fear-filled people of all; they must not fail in their friends’ eyes.  If the fear and denial of failure can remove us so far from reality, there has to be some kind of redemption in failure itself.  Perhaps if we regarded it as a routine matter, as perfectly normal and ordinary, the fear of it would not paralyse us so much.

‘Regard it as a routine matter....’ That doesn't sound like redemption.  Give us something a bit more heroic! 

An intimidating word, ‘heroic’!  Please come down a few notches!  To my mind, success is greatly overrated.  It can have a trivial meaning.  You could look successful because you have never taken any risks or attempted anything much: you could be a highly successful businessman in a company producing Christmas crackers.  People become dull when they give their lives to dull things, when they don't risk themselves any more.  There is often a kind of obtuseness about successful people, even when their achievements are real: this is because success is a very poor teacher.  Failure is in many ways the best teacher of all: it makes you more alert; and you always learn something, perhaps especially humility; it give you knowledge of your own limitations.  People who know a lot of failure are usually the most human of all. 

It still doesn't sound like redemption. 

A holy man said to me once that the temptations of Jesus in the desert were temptations to be less than deeply human: they were temptations to be a magic man, or famous, or powerful like an emperor.  He rejected them all and chose the most vulnerable human way, God’s way.  By human reckoning, this way of love turned out to be a complete failure: crucifixion was meant not only to kill the body but to wipe out all memory of a man; anyone passing by as he died that afternoon would have seen nothing but failure.  How is failure redeemed?  It is redeemed, the Christian faith asserts, by all our definitions of success and failure being turned upside down. 

My definition of success is my definition of myself, even if I never mark up to it: there is always this hidden definition of the self.  If I were free of the egocentric self I would be free, by the same token, of worldly definitions of success; I would not be defending an ego, an idea of myself – a full-time and difficult job – and therefore I wouldn't mind whether it sank or swam.

‘If, if....’  But what do you do in the meantime?

I take the things that grip me and I give them a good gallop, not minding much whether I succeed or fail.  So help me God!

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.