I just finished Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination by J.K. Rowling. So many great truths are embedded in this commencement speech.
“I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive…” Failure has the power to teach us that we can move on from what we imagine would be the worst possible set of circumstances, and know that we can continue despite suffering great setbacks.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” If we never risk anything, we never really gain anything worth having. A life lived in complete safety is a rather dull one; taking a chance, stepping out of your comfort zone, is what will prompt you to continually move forward.
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.” Failure tests our personal strength, the strength of our faith, and the strength of our closest relationships. Through trials, we learn who we can count on. We recognize that we can’t do everything alone, but need to turn to God and to those He has surrounded us with. It cripples our self-sufficiency and pride, making us humble.
“What’s more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.” If we are afraid to act, or simply choose not to, we are contributing to the darkness. We must not be afraid to shine our light in this world, trusting that each risk will have its due reward, even if things sometimes get worse before they get better.
Failure teaches us things about ourselves that we cannot learn any other way. We like to think that we can learn everything we need to know from books, from school, or from watching others. But experience truly is the best teacher, and, unfortunately, we remember painful experiences and the lessons they have taught us particularly well.
This is how our God works. C.S. Lewis said God speaks to us the most in our pain because that’s how we best understand Him. We ignore the more subtle clues that could point us back to Him, so He is forced to use more dramatic means to get our attention. The crises and failures of our lives serve to remind us of our inadequacy and God’s sovereignty, immutability, and willingness to welcome us back each time we’ve strayed.
Failure opens our eyes to reality. As it shows us our own weaknesses, it allows us to empathize with those of others and operate with a healthier worldview. While it may shatter the picture we had as children of a world in which hard work produces a perfect dream life with no problems or hiccups, failure allows us to see things as they are– perfectly imperfect. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, but those things are often only the catalyst for necessary life change and growth. If we were to never fail, could we really ever succeed? If we had no challenges to overcome, no disappointments to get over, no obstacles to face, no hard-learned lessons to point us in the right direction, how would our character develop? How could we accomplish anything truly worth having without working for it? Failure is a gift to us, wrapped in an unfortunately unappealing package. Let us not be afraid to encounter it.