Recently, I set out to run a half marathon. Going into it, I knew I couldn't keep the required race pace and would be turned back at the half-way mark. As I climbed the first hill, my calves began to ache, and the appeal of quitting intensified. I pushed on, and what I learned through this minor failure taught me a lot about the kinds of failures we face every day.
As a missionary, you move to a new culture and learn a new language in order to begin a job like bringing a people group to faith in Christ, training up their clergy, translating the Bible into their language, and/or meeting their systemic social and community needs, all while raising the money to fund it. Failure is a daily reality!
I had committed to this race at Christmas, when my dad had just learned he had prostate cancer. Not knowing if this would be our last Christmas together, our family needed some future event to rally around. An October half marathon fit the bill. By the summer, his prognosis was clear, our anxiety had subsided, and I couldn't find the motivation to face the summer heat to train.
So I found myself on race day facing a challenge I hadn't prepared well for and couldn't complete.
How did I overcome that desire to quit, and what did I learn through the experience? For me, I had to find a compelling reason to keep running in the face of all those clamoring reasons to quit. I was able to lock into enjoying the experience itself.
It was a beautiful morning to run along the horse farms, and I love the camaraderie among racers. In short, I decided I was going to enjoy the 7.5 miles I could run instead of losing joy over the miles I would not run. Having a positive purpose changed my outlook, and that changed everything.
There are at least three ways we are often tempted to respond to failure that can insure it will be a destructive, instead of resilient, experience:
- Internalize the failure: This is a common one. When you internalize a failure you are saying to yourself (sometimes literally), "I'm a failure, because I failed." If your identity is locked up in your performance, then you will never really take the kinds of risks in life that lead to success. You may even form an identity addiction--where you compulsively need the approval and recognition of others to not feel worthless. I know, I've been there.
- Minimize the failure: Another common response is to minimize or justify the failure. You might say, "Well, it didn't really matter," or "I have a great excuse." This is dangerous, because you are trying to anesthetize yourself from the feelings of grief and shame. When you do this, you insure that you can't learn from the failure and so are set up to repeat it. I know, I've been there too.
- Evaluate only the results: Finally, you may be tempted to look at the failure only in terms of your failed results. This is dangerous, because it completely ignores the effort you made attempting it. There is almost nothing of real substance that doesn't require becoming skilled, which takes practice. When you set out to accomplish a goal you have a good chance of failing at, your effort will still be noteworthy.
As I finished the race, something shifted internally. There was a freedom to enjoy what I had accomplished, learn from what I had failed to accomplish, and look forward to trying again.
The growth that comes from failure is often so fragile that it must be nurtured by others. I'm grateful that my wife was able to express genuine pride in the effort I made and listen empathetically to the mixed feelings this experience evoked. This post is the fruit of her gift to me. I wonder, who in your life can you give such a precious gift to?
I like to end my post with a question because I hope this will be the start of a conversation between the two of us.
Think about your biggest ministry goal. What's drives you to continue to pursue it in the face of the desire to quit?