Failure?non-occurrence, non-performance; running short, breaking down; ill success; unsuccessful person, thing, or attempt.
I was walking with two of our undergraduates on a chalet reading/walking party in the French Alps, and asked them if they had any ideas of new topics for this anthology. One of their suggestions was ‘failure’. I was quite surprised but they were both equally emphatic. They assured me that the fear of failure was quite common amongst undergraduates.
They reminded me of a remarkably successful organist and choirmaster at Bradford Cathedral. I once asked him what motivated him. ‘It’s the fear of failure,’ he replied, ‘it’s getting up in front of a congregation, and the choir breaking down in the middle of an anthem, or of me making a complete mess of an organ voluntary.’ I appreciated what he was saying. It shed light on my experience of sermon preparation. It also made me look back over my life and realize the fear of failure had been a main source of motivation as regards exam preparation?not exactly healthy.
How then can we best cope with failure when it happens? We shall probably have to make changes. Some of the world’s greatest pioneers were failures in their early years?Florence Nightingale, for instance. I know of at least three undergraduates sent down for failing exams, who went on to get firsts in other universities. Perseverance is important. I came across a brief summary of the life of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a long depressing list of failures, and then it ends up on a note of success?President of the United States of America.
The quotations which follow are designed to enable us to make a creative use of our failures.
The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again; but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.
And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another… But he who endures to the end will be saved.
Matthew 24:10, 13
Beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.
2 Peter 3:17
A minute’s success pays for the failure of years.
Robert Browning, ‘Apollo and the Fates’, in The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Smith, Elder & Co., 1897, volume
II, page 689
They fail, and they alone, who have not striven.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich, ‘Enamored Architect of Airy Rhyme’, in The Poems of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1882, page 240
In the world who does not know how to swim, goes to the bottom.
George Herbert, ‘Outlandish Proverbs’, number 285, in F.E. Hutchinson, editor, The Works of George Herbert, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1945, page 330
Do not be one of those who, rather than risk failure, never attempt anything.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Burns & Oates, 1962, page 80
It is often the failure who is a pioneer in new lands, new undertakings and new forms of expression.
Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, Seeker & Warburg, 1956, page 87
There is no loneliness greater than the loneliness of a failure. The failure is a stranger in his own house.
Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, Seeker & Warburg, 1956, page 104
We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do.
Samuel Smiles, Self Help, S.W. Partridge & Co., 1912, page 251
Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.
George Eliot, Middlemarcb, edited by W.J. Harvey, Penguin Books, 1985, book II, page 254
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself, section 18, in Francis Murphy, editor, The Complete Poems, Penguin Books, 1982, page 80
But I’m proof against that word failure. I’ve seen behind it. The only failure a man ought to fear is failure in cleaving to the purpose he sees to be best.
George Eliot, Felix Holt, J.M. Dent & Co., 1909, page 404
Failure is as much part of life as success is and by no means something in front of which one sits down and howls as though it is a scandal and a shame.
J. Neville Ward, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, Epworth Press, 1971, page 74
… I know that all this failure is somehow in the ultimate purpose of God, and He will use it for His own ultimate glory and for the ultimate good of men.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, The Saint Andrew Press, 1975, volume II, page 79
We are undefeated as long as we keep on trying, as long as we have some source of movement within ourselves and are not just moved by outside forces, as long as we retain the freedom of right decision and action, whatever the circumstances.
George Appleton, Journey for a Soul, William Collins Sons & Co., 1976, page 46
You’re discouraged because somewhere in your life, or in the life of others, love has failed. If you want to recover, you must try offering a loving gesture. It will put you back on the road to hope, and life. For a failed love is death, and love itself is life.
Michel Quoist, With Open Heart, translated by Colette Copeland, Gill and Macmillan, 1983, page 182
If a man has a talent and cannot use it, he has failed. If he has a talent and uses only half of it, he has partly failed. If he has a talent and learns somehow to use the whole of it, he has gloriously succeeded, and won a satisfaction and a triumph few men ever know.
Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock, William Heinemann, 1947, page 431
They never fail who die
In a great cause: the block may soak their gore; Their heads may sodden in the sun; their limbs Be strung in city gates and castle walls? But still their spirit walks abroad.
Lord Byron, Marino Faliero, II. ii. 93, in Jerome J. McGann, editor, The Complete Poetical Works, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, volume IV, page 356
It is good for a man to be brought once, at least, in his life, face to face with fact, ultimate fact, however horrible it may be, and to have to confess to himself shuddering, what things are possible on God’s earth, when man has forgotten that his only welfare is living after the likeness of God.
Charles Kingsley, Daily Thoughts, Macmillan & Co., 1884, page 207
So I am content to have failed. I have learned in the experiment priceless truths concerning myself, my fellow-men, and the city of God, which is eternal in the heavens, for ever coming down among men, and actualising itself more and more in every succeeding age. I only know that I know nothing, but with a hope that Christ, who is the Son of Man, will tell me piecemeal, if I be patient and watchful, what I am and what man is.
Charles Kingsley, Daily Thoughts, Macmillan & Co., 1884, page 143
Why not give Christianity a trial? The question seems a hopeless one after 2,000 years of resolute adherence to the old cry of ‘Not this man, but Barabbas.’ Yet it is beginning to look as if Barabbas was a failure, in spite of his strong right hand, his victories, his empires, his millions of money, and his moralities and churches and political constitutions. ‘This man’ has not been a failure yet; for nobody has ever been sane enough to try his way.
George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Androdes and the Lion, The Bodley Head, 1972, page 458
At any point in his life a man may write under his own life story so far the words ‘To be continued’. The final chapter always remains to be written, and it can be written in co-authorship with God, if the man so wills. In the same way God will write the final chapter in human history. A man’s character determines and is determined by his response to external circumstances over which he has no control. Similarly the character of a nation and the rise and fall of a civilization.
George Appleton, Journey for a Soul, William Collins Sons & Co., 1976, page 45
The great temptation is to use our many obvious failures and disappointments in our lives to convince ourselves that we are really not worth being loved. Because what do we have to show for ourselves?
But for a person of faith the opposite is true. The many failures may open that place in us where we have nothing to brag about but everything to be loved for. It is becoming a child again, a child who is loved simply for being, simply for smiling, simply for reaching out.
This is the way to spiritual maturity: to receive love as a pure, free gift.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, edited by Robert Durback, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989, page 26
At times in the past, religious men have felt that if they are faithful to God, he must grant them success, guaranteeing them against defeat, suffering, failure. Men in misfortune sometimes ask, ‘What have I done that God should do this to me?’ The answer is probably ‘nothing’, with the denial that God is responsible at all for the unfortunate happening, though there is still the mystery of his providence and the interlocking of cause and effect in the human scene. God promises that his grace shall be more than sufficient for every happening and that he will always be at work to bring a greater blessing than if the unfortunate thing had never happened.
George Appleton, Journey for a Soul, William Collins Sons & Co., 1976, page 44
I feel like writing you a rather bracing, disagreeable, east-windy sort of letter. When I read yours my first impulse was to send you a line begging you only to let yourself alone. Don’t keep on pulling yourself to pieces: and please burn that dreadful book with the list of your past sins! If the past really oppresses you, you had far better go to confession, and finish that chapter once and for all! It is emphatically your business now to look forwards and not backwards: and also to look forwards in an eager and optimistic spirit. Any other course is mere ingratitude, you know. There is a dispirited tone about your letter as if you were taking your own variations of mood and inevitable failures far too seriously?feeling your pulse too much. You say reading the Modern Mystic ‘increased your responsibility more than you can bear.’ This also is morbid (I am really horribly rude this evening!). Your responsibility ends when you have made sure that you are honest in will and intention, and are doing your best. There are no unbearable responsibilities in this world but those of our own seeking. Once life is realized as a succession of acts of loving service, under?taken in a spirit of joy, all that moonshine vanishes. I nearly quoted a text at you: but instead of that, here is a ‘bit’ which contains much food for profitable meditation I think. I wonder if you know it already?
‘There was a saint who said, “I must rejoice without ceasing, although the world shudder at my joy.” He did not think he could save his soul without it.’
People seem often to forget that Hope is a cardinal virtue necessary to salvation like Faith and Love: an active principle which ought to dominate life. I do think it would be so much better if you would go on quite simply and trustfully for a bit. After all, we value far more in our human relationships the sort of love that gives itself joyously and eagerly without introspection than the sort which is perpetually occupied with its own unworthiness or shortcomings. I wonder whether you are living too lonely a life for your temperament. You sound a bit like it.
Of course you are quite right when you say that feeling must precede doing: but unless it finally results in doing, it is mere emotional satisfaction, of no value. The direction and constancy of the will is what really matters, and intellect and feeling are only important in so far as they contribute to that. Don’t be bullied by Tyrrell: he is often splendid, and also often quite wrong, being cursed with a cleverness that runs away with him.
Evelyn Underhill, ‘Letter to M.R.’, in The Letters of Evelyn Underbill, Longmans, Green & Co., 1907, page 66