One of the books I read as a child is also a book you might know. It was called, THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD. It’s the story of a train full of food and toys for children on the other side of a very high mountain. The train needs an engine to pull it, but engines decline for various reasons. Some think that they are above such a task. One says, “I cannot, I cannot.” But there is an unlikely tiny blue engine with a kind heart who wants to try. Though it seemed like such a big task, the little engine repeats again and again, “I think I can, I think I can. I think I can, I think I can.” And maybe you know the end of the story: The little engine that could does it! It makes it! The moral of the story seems to be: If you believe in yourself, you will achieve great things!”
There is certainly some truth in that. It is good to believe that we are people who can make a difference in this world. But I suggest there is also something quite dangerous about thinking that, if we believe, we will succeed. It can create in children an unrealistic expectation of success. That concept often turns into, we MUST succeed. And, we can grow up with the notion that failure is unacceptable. Yes, a positive attitude is helpful. But certainly, there are situations where we can say, “I think I can, I think I can” and try with all our might; but we still simply cannot. Maybe the train is too heavy; the mountain too high, and our engine simply inadequate to the task. It seems unfair to teach our children always to expect success when it is inevitable that they will experience failure.
Yes, we need to try, to give important things our best effort. Yet, as one writer said, “Failure is the norm. It is unfair to young people to leave them wholly unprepared for monster screw ups … and much, much worse.”
We all experience times when things do not go well or as we planned. It happens in sports, and even in preaching. In happens in all aspects of life. Today Jesus speaks to all of this. He says, “When you go out into the streets and try your darnedest to preach the gospel and you – or your message – are not received, then what? Then shake the dust from your feet and move on.” In other words, of course it won’t work sometimes! Of course you will fail. Don’t let it eat you up.
Acknowledge your loss, and keep going. Jesus experienced failure as well. He had a reputation of wonder-working, deeds of power, and yet he would experience a disappointing reception in his own hometown.
What if this shaking of the dust from the feet was his way of shaking off failure? What if it was his way of saying to us, “God is not interested in your success, but only cares about your faithfulness”?
Failure happens! Business plans don’t always work out. Not every marriage is made in heaven. Not every surgery is successful. Not every investment is wise. Not every new product is a winner. Not every person who walks into St. Ann for Sunday Mass is going to get what they came for. Most students in college don’t make honors. Friendships are full of missteps; mistakes and misstatements. Maybe we should not be surprised when these things happen.
One writer even speaks of the sacrament of failure. For there is something of life… of goodness … of God… we can only experience when embracing our failure. If we make an idol of success, we will lie to each other and ourselves, we will cheat on tests, we will use performance enhancing drugs as athletes. Whoever we are, we will do whatever it takes to try to win; and the costs of that are just too great.
If there is such a thing as a “sacrament of failure”, it teaches us not to fear failure, but to be ready to carry on in spite of it. It stands as a warning against unrealistic expectations and can save us from a perfectionism that is destructive to ourselves and our relationships. Instead of berating yourself for your human frailty, acknowledge it, admit your failures, trust the promise of forgiveness, and move on. “Shake that dust from those feet of yours!” You are more than that failure. You are more than that mistake. You are more than that loss.
The truth is, you and I are going to win some and lose some. We can only control the effort; we cannot control the outcome.
If I had nephews or nieces – or maybe great nephews and nieces at my age 🙂 – I’d read them The Little Engine That Could. But I’d add my own stories that tell them to expect that there will also failure and to embrace that, too, when it comes. I would want my kids to hear: “Much more than your success or failure – it is your faithfulness, your integrity that counts.”