It is always possible to accurately categorize our lives as a succession of failures.
Here is a snapshot of my morning: I stayed up too late last night. I woke this morning earlier than I wanted to, but didn’t get out of bed until later than I wanted to. I’m short on sleep. My thoughts are bouncing between self-loathing and the pressure of some work projects so constantly on my mind that I kept dreaming about them. The baby is crying. I don’t know what shirt I’m going to wear today. I need to hurry kids to preschool and get myself out of the house. I don’t feel like thinking about who I am or who I am becoming or any of that.
This is not unusual, to begin my day with failure. Our lives are riddled with our failure to meet even the lowest bars we set for ourselves. We binge watch, we binge eat, we binge drink, we get too close to others, we stay too far from others, we do too much, we do too little, we spend the day distracted from the important thing, we spend the day focused on the unimportant thing. We may try to do it all differently, but any success is partial and always weighed down by the heavier fact of the failure.
So the question of formation is not whether we deal with failure but how we deal with failure. At worst, our interaction with failure makes it a self-perpetuating cycle. But “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord“, it can also be something else. Dealing with failure can actually be a practice of formation in the love of God and neighbor, it can be the reminder of God’s grace and care for us, not a distraction from it.
My cycle of failure looks like this: I often know my failure by evening. Sometimes it peaks in the evening, when I’m tired and prone to excess or absence. I give in. Then I go to bed rationalizing, Oh well, let’s try again tomorrow. But the light of morning exposes the darkness. I wake up in shame. I am not who I thought, I am not who I want to be, I will never be that person. Maybe I’ll just stop trying to be that person. I don’t even want to do this anymore anyway.
And here, the turn from shame to anger has been made. At best I take it out on myself, more often it gets taken out on somebody closest to me. That person of course has no idea what’s going on. I’ve hurt the ones I love most. Now I know I need to recover. I’ve got to start looking for something to feel good about, something to make me happy. This will either be a physical comfort – I will treat myself to something today – or accomplishment. I say, All right, I’m really going to turn this around and get this done today. I’m gonna do something well, dammit.
Having repeated this cycle so often, I have made some observations:
First, I have curved inward again. Both the cause of my failure and my response to my failure occur in the navel gazing posture.
My defining feeling at the beginning and the end is whether or not I’m feeling good about myself.
Second, I notice that my remedy for the problem is same as the cause of the problem – I turn to what I can do to feel good about myself. And when I do this I look outward for something to form me back into the way I want to feel – some accomplishment, some appetite satisfied, something out there that I can bring in here to make me feel the way I need to feel.
In this, I mistake what shone a light on my failure for the cause of my failure, I begin blaming the fact that I have boundaries or rhythms for my life at all. So when I get off my rhythms I think, I’m just gonna get rid of these rhythms. They just make me feel like a failure anyway. And yet I know I will just run to other rhythms. The rhythms of appetite, accomplishment, status or the approval of others.
This is where I’m reminded of the fundamental truth about formation, you can’t get out of it. You’re going to turn to something to form you. The question of failure in formation then is, Where do I turn when I fail? What do I do with that feeling?
Let us return to my morning – Short on sleep, heavy on anxiety, I need to change a diaper. I take a cursory, obligatory kneel by the changing table afterwards. The prayer is something like, God help me get out of this wreck. I get up and I’m annoyed that I need to read scripture before I look at my phone. I debate not doing it at all. But out of habit now, I shift my baby boy to one arm and I open up a psalm on my Daily Prayer app. It is Psalm 27. My eyes are speed reading, and then I get snagged on this line:
One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after… to behold the beauty of the Lord.
It’s like a trip wire under my running heart. I read it again, this time slowly. I read it two, three more times. Then I take an emotional tumble.
The feeling is like someone entered the room and is watching me. I turn and look out the window nearly expecting someone to be looking at me. All because I cannot shake the feeling that Someone is here with me. And when my head catches up, I name it. God is with me. He is here. He’s not leaving me.
The habit is so small, I’ve only skimmed a Psalm, and I didn’t even finish because I got hung on this line. And yet God’s words of love have punched a hole in the dark canopy of my failure, and a beam of light comes in. My eyes follow up the beam and I finally see something besides myself, it is so much more beautiful than me. In looking up and not in, I start to forget about me. The inward curve begins to straighten out: Lead me on a level path.
I think “to behold the beauty of the Lord” tripped me up this morning because this viewpoint is the opposite of the past 24 hours I have spent turned inward. I’m now not only looking outward, I’m also thinking about now what I really want – to live a life turned outwards to beauty. To behold God, and live a life of love in response to that. I spend the next twenty minutes standing on my porch with my little one, gathering the light of morning. Yes, I will be a bit late for work. But this beauty is what I need. And now, this day has begun to take the shape of God’s beauty, not my failure.
Formational habits not only teach us to look upward and not inward when we fail, but they also offer rhythms of upward glances as periodic moments in the day, week and month. Because we need the muscle memory of that turn.
So at least for this morning, I have been brought out of myself. It is still true that my life seems marked and surrounded by failure as much as anything else. But whatever it is marked by, my life is still defined by the beauty of God, who I will behold, and whose grace comes always in my failure.
So to all of you who are following The Common Rule – a bit, or partially, or thinking about it, or hesitating, or trying so, so hard – whatever you are doing we are all failing at it – but let us look up and press on. And when you fail tomorrow, I pray it lifts your gaze upward, and not inward.
Justin Whitmel Earley