The urgent necessity of failure


Used under CC 2.0 John Lui

No one likes it, no one looks for it. But if you don’t fail, you don’t learn. Part of the problem is that we’re taught that success is what matters most, we applaud achievements, we laud those who get things done. We hear about the time when everything works, but we rarely consider what happened in order to get there.

Any scientist will go through countless fruitless experiments before they hit the right formula. Thomas Edison is the person most frequently cited in this context: “I haven’t failed,” he said about his attempts to invent the light bulb, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

Likewise we perhaps know in the back of our mind the stories of people who took numerous setbacks on their way to whatever it is that means we know of them now. JK Rowling was rejected by many publishers, George Washington lost five of his first seven battles. It is because of their success that we know their names, but it is due to their failures they were able to achieve what they did.

My personal favourite is a man who we today remember for his success. His family was forced from their property when he was 7, his mother died two years later. Aged 22 he failed in business, ran for the state legislature the next year and lost, then lost his job and failed to get into law school. At 26 he was engaged to be married for his fiancé to then die. He had a nervous breakdown and spent six months in bed. After getting into the state legislature he tried to become Speaker but lost. Aged 34 he ran for congress and lost, ran again a few years later and won, only to lose his seat two years after that. When he was 45 he ran for the senate, but lost. A couple of years later sought the nomination to the vice presidency, but received less than 100 votes. Two years after that at 49 tried again to become a senator and failed. Aged 51 in 1860 Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States.

Failure is more than a bad thing that might happen. It is inevitable and it is essential, it’s the thing that pushes us forward, if it was easy where would the challenge be? Handling failure is at the heart of developing character, but character is more than just being stubborn. It’s not in our natural instinct to do a lot of the things that we need to do to build our character, we are not always diligent, we’re not always charitable, not always slow to anger or quick to love.

We need something to change, to switch our mind set. Paul writes Romans 12: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

As Tom Wright says in Virtue Reborn: “Many people expect that virtue will happen to them automatically simply because they take part in the practices discussed here. But the practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works. The key to virtue lies precisely, as we have seen, in the transformation of the mind.”

Failure drives us forward when we have an idea of what we want to achieve. Failure tells us that we haven’t made it. But for that failure to prompt us to press forward we have to have a clear idea of what we are striving for. David Brooks, in his book Road to Character, looks at a series of people who throughout history have paid attention to the development of character over and above personal achievement – some of whom went on to achieve quite incredible things. It’s an illuminating book, and one which inspires the reader to prioritise eulogy virtues, the things we want to be remembered for, over resume virtues, the things we put on our CV. But it’s also a book with a hole at its core. Brooks sometimes alludes to the belief systems that provoke people to develop good character, yet he views them really as only a prompt towards a stoic almost Churchillian never-give-in attitude. This sort of attitude is crucial in many circumstances, in fact I’m in the middle of a new biography of Churchill which focuses on the role of his Christian motivation, but it isn’t enough.

If recalcitrant obstinacy is all that drive us forward, the thing which is our goal will become all consuming, failure will hurt each time it comes and success will be the end of the road – even if it is an end with a stunning panorama. But if the thing we aim for is only ever the second most important thing, we will keep perspective: when we fail it won’t be the end of the world, when we succeed we will continue to look beyond.

That’s why prioritising the growth of character is crucial but not for its own sake. We don’t act with integrity so at our funeral someone will eulogise about our honesty. We don’t prioritise relationships just so we are remembered as a great father, husband, brother and friend, as though the remembrance is what matters most. Building character can become just another thing which we strive to achieve. Without a perspective that stretches beyond our own accomplishments and failures character can become about making me into the best me. And that distorts the heart of good character. Character requires failure, and for that failure to mean something it needs a goal which is above and beyond us all.

Behind the blog title: explaining broken cameras & gustav klimt



For more than two and a half years I’ve been writing in this space with the label Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt above my posts. And I’ve probably not done enough to explain it. I’ve roamed around the topics inspired by it, and thought one day I would offer an eloquent explanation. This is not that day, but perhaps an explanation of any sort is overdue.

The questions often come, enquiring what it’s about, what informed it. Whether there’s a reason behind the cryptic title.

The truth is a combination of the spontaneous and the profound.

The spontaneous is that on an early August evening in 2011 I decided to start a blog. I was annoyed about something someone had written on the internet – a trait that has become far too common in my blogging experience. And I wanted to write something in response. I had no platform, no place to put my words, my concerns, my disagreement. So I set up a blog and the following morning posted for the first time.

The title was what immediately came to mind. I put it in the wordpress title field and have stuck with it.

But the reason I plucked for this obscure combination of words has a longer history. To a week and a half spent in Alpine Europe a few years before.

I went away, I took some time out, I travelled, visiting 5 cities in 10 days. And I wrote. I wrote a lot, from the first evening I arrived under a lamp while sat on a park bench in Salzburg, to coffee shops and McDonalds and a hostel in Geneva while watching Million Dollar Baby.

I got home with pages scribbled, then put onto a computer and the word count clocked in at something a little over 12 000. And the title I gave to that compilation was Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt.

I’ve played with those words since, toyed with whether there might be something more to them, or if they were potentially part of something bigger. But mostly they were a wrestling of faith. Of finding words to explore what I was thinking and feeling and experiencing. Words to give voice to my hope and my dreams and my fears and my hesitations.

And two motifs came to the fore to describe the way I experience my faith coming to life and bringing life. A broken camera and the work of Gustav Klimt.

On only the second day of my trip I broke my camera. In fact it wasn’t even mine, it was my parents, borrowed for the trip, to take photos of the places I was visiting, the architecture, the cathedrals, the castles, the beautiful rivers winding through ancient cities. But I broke it.

I spent that afternoon in a melancholy mood in Vienna. I was disappointed, that something could go wrong so quickly. I had put so much hope in having a great trip and my way of recording it and giving witness to it to other people, was dealt a brutal blow. I walked through a grand park to the north of the city centre and I reflected on things going wrong.

I have sometimes had this arrogance that I could do anything if I set my mind to it. I could be who I wanted, achieve what I wanted. And then things began to go wrong. I didn’t get the job I wanted, I wasn’t sure who I was or what I was doing. And I broke a camera.

Sounds ridiculous. It was.

But if God can speak to Balaam through a donkey he can speak to me through a broken camera.

Things go wrong, that is part of life. And as much as our faith is about following Jesus and growing in likeness, it is also doing this in a context where things go wrong. Living out faith in a broken world.

The last day I was in Vienna Gustav Klimt got me thinking about beauty. Before I went away I had been chastised for never having visited an art gallery. I was not particularly bothered about this, I had never been very interested in art. But as I sat in the garden of the Belvedere Palace, quietly miffed it was an art gallery and not a museum, I realised I would be in for even more of a scolding if I only did not go somewhere because it was an art gallery. So I walked through the doors.

From the little I know of art, I knew I liked Gustav Klimt’s paintings. As I looked at ‘The Kiss’ I tried to work out why this was such a magnificent piece. It is one of his most famous, and from the case it was housed in, most expensive paintings. But it shouldn’t be any good. It does not provide a likeness, the colours are all wrong; I couldn’t even find any deep symbolic value. Yet somehow this chaotic collage of gold leaf, silver and oil creates something quite incredible.

Some time ago Portsmouth University advertised its courses with the slogan: “What comes after the Internet?” unfortunately the answer does not lie in any of their courses, or those of any other university. Innovation cannot be taught only inspired and encouraged. Likewise, beauty is not located on a map, there is no guidebook, no x marks the spot. Beauty may be captured but it cannot be controlled. Something truly brilliant and beautiful, existing on the very brink of chaos, is so finely tuned the faintest shift can lead to disruption and failure.

Beauty exists on the edge of chaos, in places that don’t make sense.

Faith is worked out in a broken world.

Hence Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt.

Writing and wronging: learning lessons as I go along

Jan Feb 2012 002Recently I have rather gone off blogging.

There’s a lot I could say, I’m fascinated by the current resurgent feminism that is highly active in many Christian circles. I want Christians to have a grounded, reasoned, theological and compassionate understanding of equality. And I want it to make a difference.

I want Christians to have confidence in their beliefs and not fear their doubts. I could write a lot more about that.

I want the church to be a place where we stand close enough to each other to see the pain in the eyes before words need to be said. When tears are greeted with arms wide open and not a shrug of the shoulder.

I want the church to be a home for the fatherless. A refuge for the widows. A community for the lonely. A sanctuary for the forgotten.

I want the church to be united.

But that doesn’t mean I want dissenters to be silenced. I’m sure I’ve been guilty at times of playing the unity card. You know the one, a bit like the race card, the good intentions, honourable goals, but brought out to end a conversation

Unity is not unity if we stop those who we disagree with from speaking. That’s uniformity.

* * *

I was asked what my blog was about, and a friend kindly explained it was about how we should ask more questions. But I also remember that the question is not the end.

I think doubt is a good thing. I think it is what provokes us to think again. It reminds us of the seriousness of what we are doing. The act of doubting and looking for reassurance is the act of remembering that we are not alone.

Once I was in the depth of my most serious doubts about God’s existence. I was on a train, I was lost in my maudlin thoughts. And I was arguing with a God I was ready to consign to the heap of non-existence. And then I realised. I was arguing with God over whether he was really there. I granted him enough status to engage with, but I only wanted Him on my terms. I wanted a god I could define, a god I could control. A god that was not a god at all.

Because God is not at our whim. But nor is he distant. For a long time I had an image of God as standing behind me, with his arms wrapped across my chest. And I didn’t like it. I wanted to get in the face of God, I thought that was the pinnacle of worship. I thought that’s what a good encounter with God meant.

But if I am looking in God’s face then I am facing a different direction to him.

* * *

Writing is not a status game. And living a life of worship is not about status. Or perhaps more precisely it is. It is about being downwardly mobile, constantly seeking to get closer to those who are in the greatest need.

I had a difficult entry into blogging. The stats for my first month took a while to top. And even then only by a month of dedicated writing on relationships last summer. I’m told my honesty and vulnerability are what makes my writing worth reading.

But being vulnerable is hard work. There are mornings when I head into work exhausted from pouring everything onto the keys. From saying words I know others are saying in the quiet huddles and furtive asides. Words that they think shouldn’t be spoken because they’re not spoken out loud. But when they are said under the breath of so many people they need to be given oxygen.

That’s why I write about relationships, it’s why I try and get to grips with things I struggle to live out myself.

It’s why I’m looking for the words to explain the challenges so many face in living a life of faith.

Sometimes there’s also a place for a bit of controversy. Sometimes I don’t agree with something. I may be on my own, my views might be wrong, they might be unfair, they might be misinterpreted, they might be used in a way that I would prefer they were not. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t speak.

Because unity requires honesty. If the body of Christ is to be more than a nominal label we apply when we want to, then disagreement has to be engaged with and not sidelined.

Last week I wrote a post and lost a night’s sleep. I disagreed with someone, and they disagreed with me back. I think that is okay. I don’t mind someone disagreeing with me. But something in me wanted to keep the peace, I didn’t want to cause a ruction, I wanted people to like me and I was afraid that publicly disagreeing might mean that some people didn’t.

I’ve mentioned being close to packing in placing words I scribe in this place. And I’ve been told not to do so. I like the affirmation I get, I like the kindness of friends and the support of strangers. It’s a nice ego trip but it’s not enough.

I will carry on writing hard things and I ask you to be my editors. To tell me when I cross the line, to share wisdom that I do not have. To encourage me and to call me out. The words may be my own but I want to learn more, and I need you for that. In the work we do we have supervisors and managers, in church we have leaders and support, in our family we have each other.

When we write we are also part of a community and we need each other. I certainly need you.

Fake it until you make it

Two types of posts get read a lot on this blog. Those about relationships and those addressing current political or church issues. So when I write about dating or singleness or Mark Driscoll or women bishops my stats page is suitably satisfied. When on the other hand I take a more rambling approach to writing, the readers do not come flocking. I suspect this is one of the latter.

It is also probably worth explaining at this point what happened to the endeavour I had provisionally titled ‘The centaur and the heir’. It was my attempt to write a novel in 30 days, 50 000 words from scratch onto the keys and into some semblance of a novel. I could try and sugar coat it and put it in diplomatic fashion but basically I failed. After ten days I was a few thousand words behind schedule and with a mostly free Sunday ahead of me I could have spent all my free time writing and given myself a boost. I had also rather shamefully posted the first two chapters of the work so instead of clarifying my abandonment I slipped quietly into the night. I decided I had other things I wished to do with my time. I took the choice to fail. It’s not often we make a choice so consciously as that, but I realised that while I was deciding to fail, I was still not entirely sure what is was I was failing at.

My novel would never have been published, not even in my most remote and wildest dreams. It was a work of fan fiction, an effort to hark back to the Chronicles of Narnia and explore what became of Susan Pevensie after her family’s death. I had lost the plot quite literally, I had no idea where it would go next, a vague concept I wanted to pull through the whole story but the characters were weak and they asserted no direction on the page. I had a handful of readers who had taken in the first two sections, but their engagement was not enough to keep me going. Nor was the brute stubbornness that had propelled me through the same endeavour last year enough. I had proved I could do it, proved I could write an inordinate number of words that made very little sense, read by even fewer and done so at a particularly busy period of work.

I simply had no reason to go on writing.

And sometimes that can be a lesson we face in so many parts of life. We want something to whisk us up and propel us forward. We want the glorious crusade, the righteous campaign, the infusion of meaning into a life otherwise droll and predictable. We don’t want to just carry on because we think we ought to carry on.

Sometimes in church life it can feel like a massive effort to keep with the programme, to show that you are on the same page as everyone else. Sometimes it can be a spiritual equivalent of keeping up with the Jones. We want to be as mature as everyone else, we want to have the same experience as everyone else. When we see others having prayers answered we wonder why ours are going unmet.

I see the doubt in my own mind and think others are plagued by the same lingering thoughts. But there is one particular doubt I want to zero in on. I doubt that there is purpose and meaning behind what I am doing. In the world in which I spend most of my time much is made of calling and vocation: of what you are doing with your life to serve God. And I feel I have none. I can scrabble around and cobble together something approaching a spiritual sounding narrative, but it is really little more than a projection of where I have come from and where I am currently at. It is all I have.

I hear exhortations to have plans and goals, and strategies, ideas of where you want to be in ten years time – and this is in church not a job interview. I hear the calls for a vision of what your sphere could look like if the kingdom of God was to break in. Except I don’t know what my sphere is and I don’t have a vision of what it might look like.

I sometimes think, if only I had something to commit myself to, a passion to throw my weight behind, a mission to get lost in, a conviction that it is this (whatever this might be) to which I am to spend myself. But I don’t and therefore I leave myself with two options. Well three if I include giving up. But unlike writing a novel in a month this isn’t something I want to pack in. At least, I hope not. So my options are either to fake it until I make it, to conjure some vision out of thin air, construct it on the back of what I do and what others might expect me to be passionate about. Or alternatively to get back to basics.

When I put it like that it seems like a no brainer, of course the basics should win over being a fraud, but I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Maybe part of the going back to basics is doing what I am doing right now as well as I possibly can. Going back to basics means not over complicating life. It means not looking for something that isn’t there. It also means stripping out the extraneous elements that combine together to create a noise through which we cannot hear the movements and melodies that lie behind our lives.

It means for me I need to stop worrying about not having a ten year plan. It means not being ashamed by what I am doing or not doing. Rescinding the relentless rhetoric towards bigger and better, onwards and upwards, letting go of the need for validity and worth in what I am doing or where I am going. There is a lot that I can do, or stop doing.

And I want that to be the focus of my attention, but there’s also a slight critique I want to make of the language, tone and rhetoric used in churches. I get the desire to cast vision, to get people caught up in where you are going, to inspire them to hear their own call. But does it run the risk of encouraging people to fake it until they make it? They see something that looks good so present themselves in a spiritual light and hang a personal vision off that prefabricated script? Does it lead to a conformity with the corporate vision by accident rather than design? Does it stifle innovation while actually seeking to unleash it? I don’t know. But I’ve felt the pressure to conform, and to find something which I do not at the moment have.

It’s a concern I have with all areas of the Christian life, if we place the expected and modelled level of behaviour high without an equivalent modelling of grace, we run the risk of encouraging a fraudulent faith because the fear of not performing up to the expected standard becomes too strong. And when faith comes down to performance it may be time to bring the curtain down, send home the cast and rewrite the script.

I don’t want to glorify messing things up or not having a clue. I don’t want to privilege doubt over faith. But I want to be honest that all these struggles exist and not present too perfect a picture.

Living a story while losing the plot

I hoped that one day I would write a piece of such heart achingly brilliant prose which would adroitly encapsulate my distorted emotions. I hoped it would help me see clearly through the mists of fear and doubt.

I thought I could write myself into a solution.

I thought if I wrote enough, if I wrote with enough passion. If I used clever plays on words. Wrote short sentences for effect.

Or longer ones. I thought that if I gained enough of a following, if I garnered enough affirmation for the quality of my writing and the wisdom of my words. I thought that then everything would be all right.

But I was writing about nothing. I was a phantom without a cause. I was a writer in need of a following and in search of people to tell me I was good enough.

But it’s not enough.

I sit awkwardly under compliments that I receive and frustratingly hit refresh as no one reads the posts into which I have poured the most of me. I think this is going to be one of those.

For the last two weeks I’ve realised that underneath the labels I wear I feel increasingly hollow inside. Almost as though I have been running on empty for a while but only just spluttering towards a halt.

I assess my life and wonder what it would be like to leave it all behind and walk into another scene.

To pack up my bags and do something completely different. If I were to accept that things haven’t really worked out how I thought they would.

But I never really had any hope for how things would be: I’m not even sure what those things are.

I hoped that would become clear. I hoped I would discover some overriding passion, a cause to fight for. Maybe micro-credit in southAsia, or sanitation in west Africa, or human trafficking on our doorstep. A story that I could jump into head first and would become the defining feature of my life.

Instead I flit from this to that, using skills but not passion. Bringing craft to words but not with purpose. Always dreaming that somewhere down the line I would stumble into the answer. I hid my lack of purpose with elegant prose; I obfuscated with metaphors and alliteration as my vices of choice. I even wrote about writing, the last recourse of one without a cause. 

But life is not like that, very rarely do answers fall out of the sky.

I wanted a story to tell as long as it wasn’t my own. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself in order to abdicate my need to address who I am. I wanted a story I could write myself out of.

I live in the hypocritical paradox of both craving approval and seeking anonymity. I cannot even move towards either of these maleficent ends with any conviction.

I am lost.

In my arrogance I think that the world needs to hear what I have to say. Whatever that might be.

In my weakness I know that no one cares.

And in between I try to find a way of living. In part it is a charade, and in part it is an act of faith. It is the grappling with what to do when I don’t know what to do. It is the search for who I am when that seems out of reach.

It is the longing of a heart that wants to do the right thing and it is the cry of despair at not knowing what that is.

It is the strength to see failure as something I must embrace, but the weakness that fears what this might look like.

And through it all I long for God to intervene, but I do not allow him to get too close; or me too close to him. I think I fear I will let him down: that whatever he asks of me will be too much and I will be too little.

I shy away from committing with everything I have because I worry about the cost of it not working out. I avoid opining about quite how frail I have become in case anyone realises just how true it is.

To strip away any pretence: I do not know what I am doing, and I do not know why I am doing whatever it is that I am doing.

But sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes that is the way things go. When mists surround and fog envelopes and doubt is all you know as true. At least it is somewhere to start. It is an authentic emotion where for so long they have felt manufactured. It is an accurate picture of where I am, and it is from where I am that I must start. 

I know this is not a place to linger, or a place where I can find solace. It is not a refuge but a launch pad. On to what, I do not know.

The power of no

There are so many opportunities in life. A canvas of choices that spread out in front of us. And we have to make the most of it. With so much on offer, who am I to turn it down?

A lot of attention is sometimes given to our tendency to avoid commitment, to opt out of things rather than dive in. I’ve not checked, I’m not sure I want to, but I’m sure there is a self-help book called ‘the power of yes’. If not, someone will surely soon write it. There certainly is a film, and a better book, called ‘Yes Man’. It is about a guy who has become so withdrawn that he says no to everything, never takes a chance, always plays it safe, and therefore stays at home. Doing nothing. The film and the book vary by transatlantic and film director logic but the main character ends up committing to saying yes to everything, no matter what. And the point is that despite the craziness that ensues, life is a lot more fun for his deciding to say yes.

Now I want to be contrary. I don’t think that the lesson we most need to learn is how to say yes more. I think we need to say no.

I went through a phase where I was frustrated by my introspection. I decided to take opportunities, to say yes, go do things I otherwise wouldn’t have done. And it was fun. I made some new friends. I went to a couple of unusual places. And part of that mentality has stuck. But part of it was always there.

Because that’s the thing. In some parts of life I always say yes and need no excuse to push the boat out, except a challenge and agree to ridiculous deadlines 17 minutes before I’m due to leave work for a week’s holiday. I have always enjoyed the sense of challenge of saying yes to things that push me outside of my comfort zone and force me to improve, and get better.

In my social life I’m much less likely to take the initiative, much less likely to push boundaries. I’m more reserved, more hesitated, altogether a whole lot less sure of myself. Perhaps that is why I’ve found it relatively easy to expound in this virtual parish what I would rarely share in person. Even though it has led to a remarkable amount of attention in my face to face world. I say no too easily in my social life. I find it too easy to find an excuse not to go to that party. Or to leave church early without talking to people. Or not to ask that girl out.

Yes I just went there. Because I don’t.

But I’m going to leave that there. And you can just deal with that.

Because that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The lesson I’ve learnt this week is the value of no.

I’ve been ill. I hate being ill. I browse netflix, I watch DVDs of Sharpe, I even contemplate a full week’s run of Come Dine With Me. I lay on the couch for 48 hours. And all the time my phone is buzzing with emails that I can’t answer with any coherence. I talk to colleagues with all the eloquence and clarity of an ogre. And I have to make some tough choices. Because as well as being ill, I’m off on holiday next week. So I have a very finite amount of time to do rather a lot of things.

And that means I have to say no. And on this occasion it meant saying no to one thing in particular. It was the one thing that I didn’t want to say no to. In fact it was really the wise counsel of my mother, still as helpful and necessary as ever, who swung the decision. I’d had an opportunity to do something today which I’d never done before. It would have been fun, it would have been scary, and it was the right thing at the right time and I really wanted to do it.

But I knew that saying no yesterday was the right decision.

Because sometimes we just have to stop.

And not worry about what it costs us. The chances that are missed by refusing to be sold the lie that this is the very thing that will make all others fade in comparison. That if we allow this opportunity to pass us by we will regret it for the rest of our lives.

We wont. I won’t. I don’t.

At the end of the day, what choices are really that critical. At what junctures in life does the decision to go down one path rather than another really affect the overall outcome.

I’m not saying there aren’t better and worse choices. I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as guidance from the divine which might indicate one route over another. But nor am I forgetting the redemptive nature of Christ.

The fact that he is in all things, that he is working in and through my very frailties, that he is working to redeem the creation that I inhabit and he has done it all that he may redeem me. That when I turn down something, he still remains. That when I walk away from him. He still remains. When I say no, both to the things that could distract me from doing what he calls me to do, and when I say no to his calling. In both cases he does not desert me.

So I was left wondering, what matters? What commitments and decisions would I not jettison? What do I hold to? For what is my yes so important that I would say no to so many other things?

And perhaps, just a little, it saddens me that there is little to which that applies. For too much of my life is a consumerist existence based on what I chose to think that I need. And when I turn to face it in the cool of the morning, I learn that saying no is sometimes the very thing that I must do.

Saying no is not the means to an end, to achieve space to otherwise fill. It is the means to a beginning. To a start of a life where we don’t accept the logic of the world. That we can let things pass us by. And the world will not collapse.

Failure is compulsory

The waiting, for whatever comes next. The hoping, for that which you dream of. The silence, when it does not appear. The anguish, when the hope starts to fade. The joy, when dreams turn to reality. The peace, when silence is a pleasure.

I’ve wondered why we can be so obsessed with achievement. Whether it is the hunt for money, for status, for a woman to wear on our arms. Whether it is in our family on the monopoly board, among our friends as we embellish to impress, or at work when we drive ourselves crazy to get ahead.

Does our affirmation come from what we achieve, or how others view us? And in the end does it all come down to the same thing? That we are judged by others on our achievements. It could be as simple as whether we are funny. Or if we got through the day at work without knocking over the tea.

But it drives us to distraction. This constant effort to impress. Often impress ourselves above all. To think that we have done something. To not feel like our existence is without meaning.

It distracts us from who we are. We allow ourselves to be defined by what we do well.

Here’s a thought: what if we got a whole lot better at failing?

At getting things gloriously and magnificently wrong. What if we embraced failure with the same enthusiasm with which we greet success? Getting it right can be so tiring, so demanding. The pressure to maintain an aura of invincibility. Yet we still try and pretend that failure doesn’t bother us, we try to shrug it off and move forward. Surely a thorough grappling with failure would not deny the pain that it can cause, the upset, the let downs, the cost.

We’re not to pursue failure out of some martyr complex, but we must address it because, and I hate to break this to you if it is news, but we are going to do it quite a lot.

When it all goes wrong and you want to run away from the world. When no one seems to care that the time you have spent has been wasted. When you summon up the guts to tell a girl you like her, and she turns you down. When the world falls from around your feet.

But not everything that does not go as we planned is a failure. There is pain, there is embarrassment and then there are the adventures in faith we take. The paths we tread even when we know not where they lead, when the outcome is vague, perplexing, daunting. I sometimes wonder if the lives we lead are the instruments of a capricious God, one who toys with us, playing games with our lives. Pushing us down roads that will lead to heartache and disappointment.

Failure is not only about learning lessons. Sometimes there seem none to learn.

Failure is not just about building emotional capacity. Sometimes the pain is too much to bear.

Failure is not the opposite to success. Sometimes it is the only option.

And it’s too often us who judge what success looks like. Perhaps we have a warped take on it all. Perhaps the greatest failures are the greatest achievers. After all, isn’t that written somewhere else?

For a little while I’ve played around with whether utilitarianism is consistent with Christianity (yes, I just brought some philosophy into this). Surely we all want what is best for the greatest number of people.

Except it assumes that we know what is best.

So here’s a thought to end with, is utilitarianism just the philosophy of delusions of grandeur? That we know what is best for the most. And this is worth whatever cost it requires.