Bouncing Back from Failure

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.”
(Genesis 3:9-10)

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.
(Genesis 3:7)

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.
(Deuteronomy 31:16)

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.


29 thoughts on “Bouncing Back from Failure”

  1. Rabbi Lapin,

    All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you. I have regrets as well, but I’m striving to make the most of every day going forward. Oh and by the way, thank you!

  2. Thank you Rabbi Lapin. I just turned 60 and have been finding myself looking back at past mistakes (I mean 30 years ago) with almost obsessive regret. Of course, if I knew then what I know now…

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your lovely family!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Susan–
      Regret can be terribly corrosive particularly if not coupled to any specific restorative action which would be fueled by that poignant dose of regret.
      Here’s the thing to remember, the more sensitive you are and the greater your vision and understanding, the more regret you feel. The only people who have lived a few years and claim to have no regret are fools or liars. Yes, you made mistakes, so did everyone else reading this site of ours; but you also did quite a few things right. So stop eating yourself up over it and make the most of every day starting right now.

  3. Dear Rabbi,

    Thank you so much for all your wisdom! I both listen to your blog and now read these tools. You’ve blessed me a lot with all of your teachings. Just wanted to say thank you! You’re awesome.

    All the best,


  4. michael overstreet

    Rabbi your words are always informative and inspiring. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to the entire Lapin family!

  5. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, you did it again, I am so awe struck with your Ancient Jewish Wisdom, IT’S SO PRACTICAL!. I discovered you and Ancient Jewish Wisdom several years ago on TCT and have been a follower ever since. As always your articles are helpful and no matter what they are about it seems to apply to some degree with what may be going on in my life. To tell you “thank you so much” doesn’t begin to convey my appreciation for you and Ancient Jewish Wisdom.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Bob–
      How many angels can dance on the head of a pin may be interesting theology to some but ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizes the practical lessons God gave us to improve our lives while in his wonderful world. Theology is all about what men think of God. Ancient Jewish wisdom is only about what God thinks of us and what he wants us to do. I am so pleased you found us through our television program on .
      May I also express the hope that you listen to the weekly show here:

  6. Your wisdom comes through as always in this article. I’m going to post this on my Facebook page because this is an area that a lot of people struggle with. Thank you for being my rabbi.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Cheryl-
      Thanks for posting this important teaching from ancient Jewish wisdom on your social media. The more people who can benefit from it and enhance their lives by rising above failure, the happier I am. (Just a reminder, I wish it was my wisdom but I am nothing but a window into the transcendent wisdom of Scripture through the lens of ancient Jewish wisdom)

  7. Thank you for your insight, your Biblical insight. Even as old as I am, I learned the hard way a few years ago that shame – that follows embarrassment from making a mistake – cost me a relationship that I valued.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Dianne–
      Since here we focus on ancient Jewish wisdom which accords even more value to the spiritual than the physical, we are less concerned with the body (which does age) than we are with the soul (which does not age.) Therefore it follows that here at you are NOT old. (Your body may be but that is irrelevant) I view every male reader as handsome and virile, and every woman reader as beautiful and nubile.

  8. Thanks a lot rabbi! This is just what I needed to read after having been a failure (entirely due to my negligence).

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Knowing what you just wrote Shine, means that you are already on the road to success…try, try, try again until you’re there!

  9. Thanks for this – it’s helpful to understand that failure is our choice but that God lifts us from it by His Grace & Mercy

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hmmm, dear David,
      “failure our choice”? I don’t think so. I certainly didn’t choose to suffer my own failures. I may have caused them by bad choices but I certainly didn’t choose them.

  10. Very thought provoking. This is an excellent read. Thank you for posting.

    I never saw shame as part of the “natural” man that we must overcome. It puts Paul’s writing of “the natural does not receive the spiritual things of God, nor can he” in a whole new light.

    I’m going to have to chew on this for awhile.

    Thanks again and God bless you.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Chew away dear Bill–
      That’s part of the function of Thought Tools. “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above” are the words spoken by Rose, a missionary played by Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart’s character Charlie Allnut in the 1951 movie masterpiece African Queen. Worth seeing for that scene alone.
      God put is in a world of nature not to accept it or Heaven forbid to view it as a god but indeed to rise above it.

  11. Shame is not necessarily bad. Shame allows us to recognize our behavior and not fail again. And not sin again. Pain, similarly, allows us to recognize physical danger and ‘not put our hand in the fire again’. Apparently, education is not enough to prevent wrongness to be learned and passed on to future generations. It’s our reaction to shame and resultant failure. We need to learn to react correctly to particular shameful acts. Failure means not to just try again, but to meantime soul-search, then make necessary changes.

    1. Shame allows us to recognize a failure and, perhaps, even a sin. It’s an OPPORTUNITY to rectify and try again.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Michael
      I should have clarified that I was not writing about shame that one feels after doing wrong or sinning. Naturally that kind of embarrassment fills a useful function.
      I confined my Thought Tool to the shame we naturally (but incorrectly) feel at failing. This does no good; merely inhibiting us from trying again. Multiple failures are also fine as long as you never stop trying. As you say, it’s an opportunity to try again. Nay, not an opportunity–an obligation to try again.

  12. Thank you Rabbi for your words of Wisdom. I found them freeing and helpful, in fact I plan on saving your teaching on failure for my future reference and to share with others.
    Wishing you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving.
    David Coe

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks David–
      The more people to whom I can grant a glimpse into ancient Jewish wisdom, the happier I am.

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