Be assured that Facebook has some great postings that aren’t tied to what you just searched on Google. One of these is a creative, beautifully written, and thought-provoking page called Mr. St. Francis. The writer, Kevin Roberts, shares about his conversations with and the wisdom received at the feet of a crumbling concrete statue of St. Francis that resides in Kevin’s backyard.
A recent post recounted a question that Mr. St. Francis asked Kevin: “What would you do if you knew you would fail?” Kevin thought the wording was a mistake, but the “concrete Catholic” answered, “No, no, listen, what would you do if you knew you would fail? What is so important to you that outcome is not a variable in the equation? What holds the highest value such that results and reception do not matter?”
Choosing failure? Historically, for me, failure was a fearful prospect. From earliest childhood, perfectionism and shame (its biting twin) hounded and suffocated me. Recovery has largely tamed both beasts, and I no longer feel trapped between those inflexible poles. Yet willingly heading into failure isn’t something I’ve ever considered.
The incisive question from Mr. St. Francis, though, brought an immediate flood of answers that prompted me to close Facebook without reading the rest of the post until later. After a week of reflection, those initial responses have held true. (Interestingly, these answers jive with principles I identified in 2019 as part of some work about my values prompted by Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead.)
What would I do again were I certain I would fail? Surprisingly, these answers brought an immediate flood of joy rather than shame or sorrow at the memories they invoked.
The initial and overwhelming first response was that I would choose to parent. I was blessed to conceive easily and to birth two healthy and beautiful children, and they have grown into amazing adults with children of their own. Yet, I’m very aware that at times I was so adrift in my own traumas and ignorance that I couldn’t identify or prioritize their needs over my own, much less have a clue about how to nurture them. I have failed as a parent, sometimes in ways that have been crushing. It’s also true that having children has been an over-arching joy of my life. I’m especially grateful that I got to parent these particular remarkable humans. What a gift!
Next, I thought that I would choose again to be married, which frankly surprised me. If staying married until death do us part is the measuring stick, I have failed twice. The first failure was from being very young and totally unequipped. The second time, though, was infinitely more complicated and staggeringly more painful. That marriage was the greatest sorrow and failure of my life in terms of the eventual ending after forty years. And I would do it again even if I knew this would be the outcome (and a part of me did very early on). The relationship honed me, it disciplined and taught me, it stretched and grew me, and it deepened my connection with God as spirituality became the only thing that sustained me. I can’t imagine any crucible more potent than a challenging marriage to teach what I have learned. And from that “failure,” I have been ushered unexpectedly into a life of immense joy.
Attempting recovery from sexual addiction was the next clear value that I would again endeavor. Naively, I thought that simply getting sober was the end game, as if that wasn’t hard enough. When I started counseling about my unmanageable life, I failed at sobriety for twelve months before August 8, 1992. Over the last thirty years I’ve had innumerable failures as I’ve realized the depth and breadth of “recovery” that goes far beyond specifically acting out. Sometimes I still fear that I’m a fraud and struggle with imposter syndrome as I examine myself and recognize how far I fall short.
At the same time, pursuing recovery has been the most important journey of my life. That umbrella of healing has brought all the other good things: the successes of spirituality, improved relationships (including with myself), an unexpected calling, connection, laughter, health, and unspeakable joy.
Finally, I thought about Bethesda Workshops, the organization and ministry to which I’ve dedicated my life. No, I don’t consider Bethesda a failure; it has grown and thrived and has a bright future. I thought specifically of the program for teens that I started a few years ago – teens struggling with problematic sexual behavior, who are accompanied to the workshop by their parents. Although I remain convinced that the need for this program is enormous and growing daily, Bethesda has canceled more of these intensives than we’ve held. When parents realize that they, indeed, truly MUST attend with their teen, only a handful have chosen to take part. (Clearly, I’m not the only parent who has failed an adolescent, but that’s beside the point.)
Despite the failures in terms of attendance and financial viability, I would attempt this program again in a heartbeat. Faces of precious, astonishing teens (both female and male) come to mind, and I know that, for once, they were seen and heard in the pain that drove their acting out, and they were comforted and provided help. Their parents had their eyes opened and learned how to improve themselves and their parenting: what gifts to both generations and to me as I observed the process.
At Thanksgiving it’s traditional (expected) to remember blessings, the successes of life, which is all well and good. For many, though, that list is short as they face fractured or empty tables, failed relationships, personal failings, dashed dreams, or situations outside their control (and the people – who, of course, are always beyond our control). I admit that I face some of those things this Thanksgiving, too.
At the same time, I would choose again to attempt those things at which I have failed. In a surprising evidence of God’s redemptive love, failures can be enormous blessings. (I pray that reversal is true for you, too.) During this dedicated time of Thanksgiving, I proclaim this paradox and am deeply grateful.’
Marnie C. Ferree