Failure is a Gift

This week’s post was inspired by a conversation with Tucker McHugh, a high school classmate who I have known for over 50 years. It was originally posted in December of 2017.

I was raised on Wheaties, “The Breakfast of Champions.”

Winning defined the purpose of my every endeavor: winning at school, winning at sports, winning with friends.  Winning was symbolized by blue ribbons, gold stars, and A-pluses.  Life was one long never-ending contest where everything was subject to comparison.  There were winners and there were losers, and to find relief you had to find a way off the grid entirely.

This notion of winning was part of a larger narrative of native exceptionalism.  Some people were just born exceptional:

  • born to win,
  • born to rule,
  • born to benefit. 

This exceptionalism extended even to the afterlife where one’s birthright was a ticket to heaven itself.  As a child I would compare my sinfulness with that of my friend, arguing that I may be bad but I’m not nearly as bad as Mike, and if you had to pick one of us as being better, then — I win.

Winning was as much about character as it was competition.  A winner won because at the heart of winning was righteousness.  We even defined our winning as blessings – gifts from almighty God.  Failure was the scarlet letter to be avoided at all costs; far better that I lie about a defeat than ever admit to one.  I remember changing a mark on my report card rather than show my parents a bad grade.

This business of winning was deadly serious and for me was to have near deadly consequences.  In my 36th year a bomb went off in my life.  It was in the summer of 1985 and my life was blown to smithereens.  I lost connection with all the attachments that gave meaning to my life: my marriage, my business, my self-respect.  It was as if my very identity had been stolen.

The fact that I could not escape, minimize or rationalize my way out of my predicament served to clarify the moment.

Some failures are too big to be ignored.

That summer opened my eyes to truths that had entirely escaped me for 36 years.  Somehow I had come to believe that life really was all about winning and losing, success and failure, the blessed and the not blessed.

I missed the part about:

  • The Yin and Yang,
  • That one cannot exist without the other
  • The judgement of God is his mercy

This recognition of myself as a failure ushered in a new era and over the next few years I came to accept that failure is the flip side of success, that each is made real by the very existence of the other.  For the first time, I learned to accept, and sometimes even embrace, failure.  I learned that failure could bear many gifts:

  • Failure fertilizes creativity
  • Failure spawns growth
  • Failure feeds innovation
  • Failure invites humility

Is a tree a failure because it sheds its leaves in the fall?  Are animals failing during molting season?  Is a child failing when her first teeth are lost?  Isn’t failing but the first act to a greater drama?

So why did I so often flee after the first act?

On a recent visit to Holyrood Cemetery where many members of my family are buried I thought how soon it would be that I would join them.  How different winning and losing look from a grave site!  Living a day translates to losing a day.  Living and dying actually occupy the same space!

And then I was reminded of Harry Truman’s observation, “My father wasn’t a failure; after all, he was the father of the President of the United States.“  I looked over to my dad’s grave site, smiled and winked.

Truly there is only one victory in which we all share equally: eternity.

Just a thought…


Copyright © 2017 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.

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