When I first started blogging, many years ago, I had a pretty solid formula that always yielded good results (many shares and comments). I began a post by telling a story about some little failure in my life, a trial in housekeeping, or an anecdote about the kids embarrassing me. Often it was a failure in my Christian life.
I set up a soft conflict, that wasn’t really my fault—because clearly, I was awesome—but it allowed readers to relate to me when wild and crazy things just kept happening in life to humble me. Then, in the course of a thousand words or less, I set about learning a lesson from all the madness, some little nugget that readers could take away and apply to their own lives.
It’s a pretty common formula really. You hear it in talks by motivational speakers of all kinds.
You hear it in homilies and sermons. You see it on commercials. There’s a reason the formula works, and why it’s used often to sell books, movies, theories, and thousands of other products.
It’s called The Pratfall Effect, which in social psychology is the tendency for otherwise competent people to seem more attractive after committing a light, socially acceptable blunder. In romantic comedy, it’s the beautiful heroine who trips on her way into a job interview, but still gets the job. It’s Steve Jobs undergoing trial and error on his rise to becoming one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the 21st Century.
In the field of economics, risk-taking and low-casualty failures are common factors in the backstory of nearly every entrepreneurial success. And so we find maxims to “embrace failure,” and to “fail better” creeping into popular parlance, and Christian psychology as well.
The wildly popular writer, speaker, researcher and story-teller, Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, and spiritual soul mate of Oprah Winfrey, begins her TED talk with an anecdote about her own life-changing failure. While studying shame, vulnerability, and authenticity, she discovers that her own life choices are not in accord with the outcome of her research. She has a breakdown, visits a therapist and ultimately embraces this dark moment, changing course in her career in perfect time to take her research and her message to an audience of millions.
Brown’s story is an example of the pratfall effect in action. By sharing her own failure, Brown gains the trust of her listeners, and asserts that they, too, can embrace failure and vulnerability, and change the outcome of their lives.
For Christians, there is both a grain of truth, and a pitfall in Brown’s message. The grain of truth is that acknowledging failure can be a spiritual turning point or a time of spiritual growth. The pitfall is believing that a subsequent success must validate us as people and Christian souls. In short, the cult of failure is often the cult of success in disguise.
Brown acknowledges the divinity and specialness in each soul, so she appeals to a spiritual minded audience, but her message subtly nudges us towards an earthly sort of success. It may not be financial or entrepreneurial, but rather towards a sort of respectful utopia, where everyone acts in mindful authentic ways, having engaged in tough examinations of privilege and conversations about the dehumanizing attitudes of popular culture.
For Christians, there is both a grain of truth, and a pitfall in Brené Brown’s message.
It’s a fine goal, but it remains a different kind of success narrative in which—having owned your story—you set the terms going forward and define your own happy ending.
The most common failures experienced by her subjects are failures to self-express. Her subjects have been shamed by others at some pivotal point in their development, by teachers, clergy, or their parents and so, they no longer feel worthy of self-expressing. By leaning into shame, or other dark (but mostly socially acceptable feelings and failures exerted on them by outside forces), and allowing themselves to be vulnerable, her subjects can take ownership of their stories and eventually succeed at self-expressing.
If success is defined as “owning your story” or becoming “whole hearted,” then the onus is on the practitioner to get it right. If you have not arrived at whole heartedness—a term which remains vaguely if not wholly undefined—then you have not done the work of being vulnerable, courageous, and authentic. You are your own savior, or in Brown’s words, “You are enough.”
This message is aimed almost exclusively at a class of upwardly mobile creatives, entrepreneurs, and able-minded book buying members of the public whose errors in life have few casualties.
In a world without personal sin, where dark feelings and emotions are always exerted on one from outside, then you may well be enough. What then for those of us whose most frequent errors are not a failure to self-express, but rather a failure to hold the tongue? What is there for those of us who really do behave in wretched, hurtful ways—those of us who sin?
Christianity turns the soft solutions Brown proposes exactly on their heads, and does not marginalize those whom we might term the real failures of history. Pedophile priests, con artists, absentee fathers, the chronically unemployed, moms who’ve lost their minds in serious and concrete ways—no one is telling them to embrace their failures. Rather, the world tells them to quietly disappear, please.
As a Christian, I place hope, not in myself, but in a powerful God who doesn’t just think I’m cute when I commit good-natured blunders. He loves me fiercely, even when I behave in ways that are unrecognizable to his design for me. And his design is brilliant, created to His specifications, which defy and even at times oppose worldly concepts of success, achievement and beauty.
I place hope, not in myself, but in a powerful God who loves me fiercely, even when I sin.
I don’t own my successes—if I get them. I don’t really even own my own story. Any goodness in my life is a gift, a mercy. My story is this exceptional news I keep telling people—that my failures have been redeemed in Christ because they have drawn me into His mercy, and into his very presence (if I am willing). Failure can be a transcendent experience, as long as I don’t hide from God in the wake of sin, but turn to him with greater decision and more vehemence, again and again.
My sense of worthiness and belonging comes not from what I do or from any perception of myself as authentic in the eyes of men, but rather from being counted among the adopted sons and daughters of God, members of his family, and brothers and sisters to each other. We have communion with each other in the Body of Christ.
Failure is isolation. Failure is the default position of unredeemed humanity. Failure is not actually a place to rest and “Be where you’re at” but rather a place to abandon as quickly as possible, returning always to the arms of our loving Father. Be where you’re at is transformed into rest in Him. This is the opposite of embracing failure. It’s embracing the source of everything and all power.
©Copyright 2015, Elizabeth Duffy. All rights reserved.