Failed Confessions of a Success-o-holic

We’re told that learning how to handle failure is an important part of growing up. Yet we do everything we can to make sure our kids never experience it. What did Samuel Beckett actually mean when he told us to “fail better”? And what does it have to do–if anything–with the theology of the cross? All this and (not) much more!

David Zahl / 7.30.14

Are we starting to fetishize failure? That’s the question that’s been buzzing around my brain since reading Bill Deresiewicz’s thought-provoking piece for The New Republic (which Will dealt with so well on Friday). This paragraph in particular stuck out:

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.

fail-betterIt probably goes without saying to readers of this site, but I sympathize with his diagnosis, especially that final clause. The purpose of success has long since been subordinated to success itself; in the minds of many, success exists almost entirely for its own sake. Failure/success has become the only rubric through which vast swathes of us interpret our existence. Or maybe it’s always been the case and I was too young to see it. But just when you thought ‘works righteousness’ could not be writ any larger over the shores of American culture…

But Deresiewicz is talking about more than ‘performancism’. When the smallest suggestion of failure is enough to cause a complete nervous breakdown, perhaps what we’re dealing with would be more accurately referred to as ‘success-o-holism’. Anyone who’s witnessed the “disorientation” he describes knows that there’s something almost physiological about it. I see it in both myself and the undergraduates with whom I work.

I’m not sure trophy rage is the answer–any more than helicopter parenting. After all, the problem is not that we’re erring, as a society, on the side of ‘unmerited favor’ in our evaluations. If anything, we’ve exalted ‘merited favor’ to unimpeachable heights–we not only tolerate nothing else, we refuse to acknowledge anything else as a reality. Which means grace becomes increasingly incomprehensible (though no less urgent). So of course the students we reward with entrance to our most vaunted institutions haven’t experienced failure. Would we really rather them have gotten a few D’s? (Do they give D’s anymore?) What we want is for them to have the ability to deal with a D without having ever gotten one. Talk about an impossible standard! Compassion remains our watchword.

One of the loudest responses to success-o-holism thus far appears to be the growing ‘cult of failure’ that Stephen Marche pointed out in a recent column for The NY Times, “Failure is our Muse” (as well as our own Sarah Condon a few months ago). The message sounds liberating at first blush, until you realize that no one is actually letting people off the hook for their shortcomings. We’re simply annexing them for the sake of glory, tolerating and in some cases advocating for failure because of its potential fruit aka success:

Failure is big right now — a subject of commencement speeches and business conferences like FailCon, at which triumphant entrepreneurs detail all their ideas that went bust. But businessmen are only amateurs at failure, just getting used to the notion. Writers are the real professionals…

“Fail better,” Samuel Beckett commanded, a phrase that has been taken on by business executives as some kind of ersatz wisdom. They have missed the point completely. Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success, which is what the FailCon crowd thinks he meant. To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down…

Marche is talking about creative failure, which clearly does not always have an upside (when was the last time you watched The Phantom Menace?!). But I wonder if his point has theological resonance as well, specifically with this morning’s quote about the theology of the cross. Nadia is wise to warn against the human tendency to “see through” the cross to the positive results it produces, both personally and cosmically (i.e. salvation, love). When we do, we end up “seeing through” our failures as well–they are never just failures. Such silver-lining-itis is convenient because it buffers us from the very suffering we are theoretically venerating. Our moral deficiencies become the handmaiden to our spiritual success, rather than that from which we need to be saved. We turn our failures into tools for self-justification, in other words, a new mode of control and therefore despair, since we’re presuming a possibility of success that the Law simply doesn’t allow for (see: Rich Young Ruler). As the saying goes, a death must truly be a death before there can be resurrection.

Alas, if we are guilty of presenting the theology of the cross as a more potent means of engineering humility, love, character, etc (which it often does, thank God!), of instrumentalizing suffering and/or making grace into a mechanism–i.e. failing to understand or interpret failure correctly–it’s only because we are no more exempt from the human condition than anyone else. And yet, the theology of the cross even deconstructs our attempts to turn it into a glorified cult of failure. It cannot be ‘gamed’. No matter how hard we try to co-opt our shortcomings, no matter how subversive and overwrought our strategies become, the good news remains: the god hanging from the cross isn’t about to get down.