One of the big reasons that some people flourish while others just remain frustrated by their painful circumstances is shame. Shame about failing or about having failed. The mortification is painful enough to prevent any further attempts.
Of the hundreds of world cultures identified and studied by the great social anthropologist, Joseph Daniel Unwin, by far the majority associate failure with shame. Feeling embarrassment and shame after failure is common precisely because it is the normal and natural reaction to failure. Normal and natural it may be but that doesn’t mean that we should regard it as acceptable. Many things are normal and natural yet we correctly confine them to the private. Similarly, a private sense of humiliation upon failure is certainly normal and natural. But rising above those feelings is our human challenge.
The real problem with those destructive emotions is that they paralyze us just as certainly as a chemical neuromuscular blocking agent does. The absolute last thing that anyone licking his wounds in the cave of humiliation feels like doing is trying again. Yet that is exactly what God expects of us.
Every school child knows of the hundreds of failures endured by Thomas Edison before he perfected the electric light bulb. Most Americans know how Abraham Lincoln first failed in the military, then in business, then in law, and finally even in politics before becoming one of his country’s most important presidents. Henry Ford, R.H. Macy, and Walt Disney all failed spectacularly before their colossal successes.
Almost everyone who attempts something wonderful will fail along the way. What is the most reliable way of escaping the paralyzing effect of the shame that follows failure? Remembering that failure is as normal as going to the bathroom. In fact, God created us to fail…but He also created us to learn from failure and bounce back to try again….and again……and again until we win success.
The only time that failure ever deserves embarrassment is if we flounder in our failure and wallow in paralytic stupor, refusing to pull ourselves up and throw ourselves back into the struggle. How do we know that God created us to fail? Consider an apparent contradiction in the well-known account of Adam and Eve.
And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, “Where are you?”
And he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid.”
The only problem with these words is that Adam was not naked. Just two verses earlier we read these words:
And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked,
and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles.
Since they were clothed, what did Adam mean? Even if he was naked, surely he knew that God could see everywhere, even behind a tree. Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that Adam wasn’t referring to physical nakedness. He meant that he was utterly exposed and vulnerable on account of having violated the one commandment that God had given him. He felt naked of virtue and overwhelmed by failure; he assumed that his relationship with God was now over. Instead, God explained that there are penalties for failure, in this case eviction from Eden and a change in man’s relationship to work, but after that you move forward. He taught the ever-important message that failure does not terminate our relationship with God. On the contrary, failing and then bouncing back does more for our relationship with God than had we never failed in the first place.
Later, we see God talking to Moses and predicting that Israel will sin. He doesn’t say to Moses, “If they sin,” this is what will happen. He says they will sin. Living in reality means accepting that we will fail.
And the Lord said to Moses: Behold, you are about to lie with your fathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the gods of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them.
There will be consequences as there always are when things go wrong. But there will be restoration and Israel will grow and prosper.
The best way to fail upward, to recover from failure is to realize that we shouldn’t indulge in and yield to shame when we fall short. Failure is merely part of the growth process. He who has failed is far better equipped to handle the eventual triumph. Knowing this helps one to pick oneself up, dust oneself off, and return to the fight.