© DeAnna Alm 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 27, 2010

Can you all see this? [Hold up carton of ice cream] Do you all know what this is? Some would say, "It's ice cream." I like to call it by its nickname - "the Diet-Killer." My routine with it has often gone something like this, "Oh, I really want some ice cream. In fact, I NEED that ice cream. I'll have just a little in a bowl. Mmmm, that tasted wonderful. Maybe just a few more spoonfuls. Ok, just one more. I'll just smooth the edges down a little. Uh-oh, I've eaten over half the container. Damn, I've blown my diet for today already . . . I may as well finish the carton. And skip the gym. Forever." I would let that one original failure to stick to a limit cascade even further, diving deeper into the carton and giving up on the goals I had set for myself.

We're used to thinking of failure as an ugly word. At an early age, we all learn that it is something to be avoided at all costs. Be a winner, not a loser; bring home As on that report card, not Fs; if something's worth doing, it's worth doing absolutely right. And it's true, there are many places where it's very important not to fail. We need to live our lives with integrity, to treat those around us with dignity and respect, and strive to leave the world a little better place than we found it. But when we give the word fail too much power, when we allow it to be a "four-letter word," then we give it the strength to drag us further away from the direction we want to be heading. In reality, what happened may not have been a failure at all, but labeling it as such becomes the excuse to stop trying, because if we persevere, we run the risk of failing yet again.

Winston Churchill said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." One way we can find that courage to continue is by examining what we think of as our failures in order to discern what led us there. Examining what we see as our failures requires time for reflection, and that mere act of reflection may change our view. Many of us know someone who focuses so much on the small details that he or she cannot appreciate the big picture. When an event does not go strictly as planned, these folks consider the whole occasion to be a failure. They miss out on the joy or the learning experience of the entire event because they can't let go of the parts that didn't go perfectly. When we look honestly at what went right as well as examining what went wrong, we are more likely to try again, and perhaps succeed more - or at least enjoy it more!

Relationships are a place where we can suffer by giving the idea of "failure" too much credence. Many of us have had one of those apocalyptic break-up experiences, the ones where afterwards you go out for margaritas with your friends and swear that you will never date again. Most of us don't actually mean that, of course, but that break time can be of great value. When a relationship falls apart, it really is vital to spend some time examining it, rather than just writing off either the relationship or oneself as a failure. We all bring our own steps to the dance, and if we are stepping on toes or constantly getting our own flattened, then it's valuable to pause to see where changes can be made. In taking that time to examine our relationship, we may find things about ourselves that can be improved which will lead to more healthy future relationships. That time of honest reflection, brought on by a failure of the relationship, can result in serious and significant personal growth.

Fear of failure can make us hold on to unhealthy relationships. Many of us know someone who has stayed in a dysfunctional or abusive partnership because the prospect of divorce or being alone seems like too much of a personal failure. I know someone who was locked into years of conflict with her alcoholic mother. It was not until she was able to get over the fear of being seen by others as a "bad daughter" that she was able to cut her ties and refuse to interact with her mother until her mother underwent treatment for her addiction. They have a cautious relationship now, but one that is healthier for both of them than the previous conflict.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, "Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up." Those of us who have tended children know how a serious fall at the playground works. You comfort the child, help them regain their breath and their confidence, point out changes they might need to make (like tying a dangling shoelace), and send them off to try again. We worry about a child whose scraped knee leads them to wail, "I'm never going to play on this stupid playground ever again!" As adults, we too need to remember that it's not appropriate to "abandon the playground." Take the time to analyze why a situation did not turn out the way we wanted, work on discovering the changes that need to be made, and give it another try. That's not to say that we should beat our heads against brick walls in order to get to the other side. Analyzing a failure could lead us to decide that we should be trying something completely different. We might change our goal, or change the methods we use to reach the original goal, but our focus is on continuing to try, rather than giving up and throwing ourselves into a cycle of disgust and self-reproach.

Robert Browning wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Without stretching to reach for a goal, it's too easy to become complacent. Only doing what we know we can do is comfortable, because we know that we won't suffer through the embarrassment and difficulties of messing something up. We won't have to apologize to anyone for falling short. However, all too often we don't give ourselves enough credit. We are capable of doing far more than we imagine possible. Without stretching, without reaching, and without risking failure, we don't find out what we can truly achieve. Instead, we remain frozen into immobility, paralyzed by the fear of failure, or even merely an incomplete success.

Some of you may be scoffing a little. "Look at the little Pollyanna - 'Oh, I lost my right foot in a bear trap, but I can still hop around on my left!'" I don't mean to dismiss anyone's difficulties and trials. Sometimes we fall and we really can't get up, either temporarily or permanently. Sometimes we truly have failed - we miss that crucial deadline, don't achieve the goal we set, don't stand up for the person who really needed us. At times it wasn't an accident - for some reason, we did something that we knew was wrong. It can be a terrible feeling, whether we are being yelled at by the boss or whether we are kicking ourselves for not living up to our own standards. Some failures should make us feel terrible, and we need to make what amends we can for failures of that type. Overcoming fear of failure doesn't mean glossing over the effects of those failures, particularly the ones that affect other people. It does mean being willing to rise up again after a fall, and accepting the risks inherent in doing so.

If we are not going to allow "fail" to be a four-letter word, then we need to remember to take the time to be introspective when we feel we have failed. Was it truly a failure, or are we being too hard on ourselves? What led up to it? Where along the way could we have made different choices and perhaps brought about a different outcome? Do we need to change anything about ourselves in order to increase chances of future success? That time of introspection is also when we need to take a deep breath and remind ourselves that "past performance is no guarantee of future results." A failure is much more significant when we allow it to push us into a spiral of hopelessness, helplessness and despair.

Don't let failure be a period. Failure should be a comma, or maybe a semicolon - a time to stop, regroup, and then start again. If you're driving down the freeway and your mind drifts, you'll find yourself bumping over those Botts Dots in the lane markers. That's a failure, right? A failure to pay attention. But your reaction to that should not be, "This shows that I am a failure as a driver, I will always be a failure, so I'll just keep bumping along over these dots." No, you say, "Oops, I need to correct this! I need to pay more attention and drive better."

I hope that my words today provided you with some food for thought and some encouragement. I've been thinking about this topic for some time, but my fear was that I would either end up with a three-minute long sermon or one that could be dismissed as nothing but a mass of platitudes. By the clock I can see that I'm OK on the first one, and I hope that you feel that I have also avoided the second.

As we go forward, let us not seek to fail, but let us not allow the fear of failure to hold us back. As we begin, begin again, or begin yet again, let us see that there is far greater success in continuing the attempt than in not trying at all.

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