“Failure is certainly one of these strange angels”
This quote comes from an Anne Lamott book I was reading a couple summers ago on a flight between my Grandmothers’ house in Missoula, Montana and my temporary residence outside of San Francisco, California. I was sitting next to this tall guy named Andy who was probably Dutch. The truth was, Andy was really outgoing and nice, but he was really wanting to take advantage of the free beer on the flight and I was wanting to cry. So I read my book and wondered what Anne Lamott was talking about in relation to failure.
Eventually the feeling of needing to cry went away and I rested my head against that awful airplane pillow that gives airplane hair and stole glances at fidgety, drunken Andy and wondered how much I cared about failure. There are so many times I have really messed up bad in life, and I try not to keep these things secret from myself. I try to keep them vivid in my memory so I can learn from them and so I can relate better to people groups who are interesting.
But here in Korea, I think one of the things that made the end of the summer and the beginning of fall so difficult is my fear of failure. Or more specifically: my fear to not succeed. Really the only difference between those two is a shift in definition. But that is exactly what this part of the story is about: the shifting of my definitions of things. The shifting of my ability to define and name what is and was going on in my life.
Fear of failure should not drive anything we do.
So on some nights I will climb the stairs of my little apartment, click the lock to the right on my door, boil some water for tea and stare blankly into space because of how poorly I did that day. I stare, usually focusing on the steam blasting out of the tea kettle’s little silver snout, because I want to be the best teacher ever but something in the day has shown me that I am not. And so I sit on my bed as the water boils and think about how some day I am going to end up in Southern Ohio in a house with chipped paint. My yard will have twisted metal and a rusty, old Dotson that hasn’t moved for years in the yard. I will have neighbors who blare country music from their garages and my husband will drink bud light, and my kids wont wear shirts or shoes. There will be orthodontic issues in my house because no one will have the where-with-all to do anything about it. And by the time my kids go to High School, they will be intimidated by the kids who play sports, and have nice teeth, and wear Abercrombie and Fitch.
And so I have a freak out because of how bad a given day has been, I sentence myself to this doomed sort of first-world hell that I have imagined while taking Amtrak through various parts of the United States. So I feel really proud when I scribble down in my journal that I am not scared of failing, I am scared of not succeeding. Like, somehow that is a healthier definition of the whole thing.
One of the things that was really difficult to get used to was living in such a busy, crowded city. There is always this thrum, this thud, this throb. And people push you because they have important places to be and there is no other way to get there other than physically moving you. So when you stop because you are hurting and you are hurting because you have failed its actually really good. The same way scrubbing your face with that gritty St. Ives stuff is good: it hurts, but it gets all the bad stuff off your skin, and your face glows a little after.
So I curl up in my apartment with my tea and my Misty Edwards and call it my cave. I ask God to open my ears and my eyes and my arthritic, stubborn fists, and hope my cave makes me as sharp as Elijah’s cave made him. But then I realize, Elijah probably didn’t use his cave to remember people like Andy, or fear a chipped-paint house with twisted metal in the yard.
And so we are at the part of Korea that has taught me a crucial lesson:
- Caves are necessary for Spiritual growth
- It matters what you do in that space of your cave: you cannot agonize about your looks, or professional development or even your Spiritual maturity… you have to ask the Lord what He is agonizing about in your life, and then you have to listen.
I should have learned this earlier on. Every day I pick up at least one screaming and crying 5-year-old. “It’s ok to cry in 6-1b,” I will say to them, “but until you tell me what’s wrong, I can’t help you.” And so it seems, the rules are the same with this cave situation. Unless we enter into these conversations with God and tell him what’s wrong, and answer His questions, instead of demanding answers for ours, I am not sure we will get very far.
And so this is a primary part of the journey of my first year in Korea. Learning from 5-year-olds, making use of my cave space, experiencing how quiet and still the presence of God can be in this rushed and brash and loud world.
And so I have gone about my days here: with colder hands than I have ever had, drinking more coffee that I can probably afford, hugging and loving small children who are guests in my life and temporary but deeply meaningful characters in the story being written for me. And renaming these moments of failures as little grace gifts that I don’t deserve. Possibly at the end of this season in my life, I will be able to see this theme of failure and name it as an angel who guarded me and taught me.
Or it might take until I’m 50 and deep creases around my eyes begin to form. But either way, the transformation from shame over my failures to gratitude for my intrapersonal lessons has been the cadence that gently sings itself over what has been going on “over here”.