For new success, we need freedom to fail
One of the most memorable questions I've ever been asked in an interview came as a surprise. Having laid out the case for my application and credentials to the search committee, one of the interviewers turned to me and asked, "This is all well and good, but have you ever failed? Or has everything you've done been a success?"
I was taken aback by the question. My mind went blank and I paused to ponder how best to respond. Had I ever failed? I wondered to myself. No immediate examples came to mind. Yet, it didn't feel genuine to say I had never failed.
The search committee stared back at me as I bided my time to think of a response. Silence seemed to stretch out between us as I came to an answer internally. Finally, I was able to respond.
"I can't say I have failed." I said, speaking off the top of my head. "I wouldn't consider anything I've done a failure. Sure, there are situations and circumstances that didn't work out the way I thought they would, but I wouldn't call anything I've done a failure. Every situation has the potential to teach us something; looking at my life through that lens, I can't say that anything has been a failure — because no matter the outcome I've grown and benefitted in the process."
The interviewer who had asked the question nodded, smiling as she wrote something down on the paper in front of her while another member of the committee asked a new question. I felt confident that the rest of the interview went well, but walking out of the interview, that solitary question begged to be revisited.
"Had I ever failed?" I continued to ask myself."If I had, why couldn't I name or claim it? And if I hadn't, what lessons might I have missed along the way?"
Despite being rattled by the question and uncertain about the quality of my response, I was offered the position. Yet, even then, the question remained — one of those existential questions I return to from time to time.
After years of lying dormant, the question has returned recently with a vengeance. Now, though, it comes with a larger berth than before. What once was a question that only concerned me as an individual has now taken on a communal aspect. And what was narrowly defined in terms of the past (had I ever failed), now urges me onward as I look to the future of my own life, our church, and religious life.
How free are we to fail?
The question has become not will we fail, but how do we approach failure, what effect does it have on us, and how do we understand failure as an integral part of growth, transformation, and the journey of faith? Failure, after all, is intertwined with change and transformation. The way in which we read the signs of the times calls for an ability to adjust to change and to meet adversity with grace and creativity.
As I consider religious life today and into the future, the question of being free to fail rises up again and again. As I sit in circles that discuss the future we are trying to live today, the same questions arise over and over: Can we try something new without the guarantee of success? How free are we to live the mission and not just leave a legacy? What does daring newness rooted in bold Gospel living look like today? And what is our capacity for and our desire to live this way?
The call it would seem is two-fold: to be free enough to fail and to have the courage to live in ways heretofore thought impossible (whether by fear, history/tradition, or complacency). Answering that call and keeping the questions it bears at the forefront promises not to be pretty. Where we might desire clear answers, we will instead be plunged into the messiness of life. There, we face the reality of the Incarnation, a reality we've given (and continue to give) our lives to.
In the words of Sr. Teresa Maya, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, from an interview with U.S. Catholic earlier this year, "God is stirring things up. We need to trust that. It is a call to faith. … In many ways, it's not whether you do or don't like change, it's how you live change. We need to understand that the incarnation is the transformative conversation that God has with us and that the transforming conversation happens always in the present. It happens when we engage the present."
Engagement with the present looks different at each moment. It requires ongoing discernment and an ability to surrender what we think is best in exchange for or with a consideration of what God most desires. That shift lived out could easily look like failure, like plans uprooted and order disturbed; but perhaps instead of seeing such change as failure we might interpret it and treat it as what it truly is: faithfulness.
To be faithful to God's call is to risk all for the glory of God. Allowing for and witnessing to Incarnation has always been and will always be a gamble. Yet, God goes all in on us: trusting 2,000 years ago that a young woman would say yes to the annunciation spirit, and experiencing the graced grittiness of the world everyday with us.
Held in that presence we must dare to face the world with a spirit of hope and courage. We must take heart in the One whose death on the cross seemed, in that moment, to be a marked failure. That failure was one grounded in faithfulness, a moment of transformation pointing towards a new day and new life.
To be free enough to engage the present moment is a liberating — if not also anxiety-inducing — movement. It requires a letting go that chooses to trust in the grace of this moment, even when "what's next" is uncertain. Jesus joins us in that uncertainty and invites us to let go of the need to succeed and the notion of success as we once defined it. Projects may not be carried to completion; plans may need to be changed.
Our priority must become an attentiveness to promptings of the Spirit. When heeded above all else, this grace has grounds to blossom and we have the capability to do the work of God — work that doesn't always follow our designs or inspire instantaneous consolation. Yet this is the work we cautiously commit ourselves to, transforming ourselves and our world in the process.
What feels like failure in the moment is an opportunity for growth. The unease of facing the change it inspires calls forth faith. And, with any luck, as we free ourselves and our institutions to fail, we will discover a new form of success: success in faithfulness to the Spirit, that far exceeds anything we could ever accomplish on our own.
[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.]