Fear of Failure

August 27, 2015 at 1:22 pm

© Scott O. Smith, All Rights Reserved

In June of 1970, Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no hitter. There have been some 250 such events in the modern era of baseball, but few have matched the unique performance of Ellis that day because Dock was high-as-a-kite, tripping on LSD.

Ellis’s struggle with substance abuse is well documented. In fact, throughout most of his career, his ability to perform at such a high level (yes, pun intended) despite his ever-present state of inebriation was often a badge of honor for him. But when the spotlight of fame finally faded and his career was years behind him Ellis began to spend his time urging other wayward kids to guard themselves from the perils of substance abuse. Prior to his death in 2008 from liver failure Ellis admitted publicly that he took drugs to numb his fear of failure.

Toni Morrison uses a different kind of drug to escape her private fears. Recognized as “one of the most celebrated writers of our time” Morrison is a winner of a Pulitzer, a Nobel, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. From all external appearances she has succeeded at the highest level of her craft. And yet, she harbors regrets. In a recent interview with Terri Gross of NPRs Fresh Air she confessed,

“Now that I’m 84, I remember everything as a mistake, and I regret everything…And so writing, for me, is the big protection. But when I’m not creating or focusing on something I can imagine or invent, I think I go back over my life – and you pick up, oh, what did you do that for? Why didn’t you understand this – not just with children, as a parent, but with other people, with friends….it’s not profound regret. It’s just a wiping-up of tiny, little messes that you didn’t recognize as a mess when they were going on.”

Male or female, writer or athlete, all of us live with a seemingly constant fear of failure. Parenting, teaching, pastoring, selling, leading, competing, counseling, policing, defending or healing- every one of us contends with the demons of self-doubt, inadequacy and insecurity. And all too often “successful” people are not the ones who have somehow learned to overcome it as much as they have learned to escape it. Your vice may not be writing or LSD, but most likely there is something you turn to when the fear of failure comes knocking. Pornography? Shopping? Exercise? Media? Control? Is it a relationship, a promotion or a possession? Or do you simply keep running as fast as you possibly can, believing the lie that rest is just around the corner, hiding behind one more project, one more chore, one more meeting, one more event.

But the rest never comes and the internal voices grow louder and so we push harder, run faster, scream louder, and escape deeper until the very things we have used to escape from failure becomes the means to our end. From pastors, to TV stars, to spokesmen the carnage of fallen leaders numbing their self-doubting conscious seems to pile higher every month. And away from the public eye, millions more of us are toying with the same troubling pattern of escaping deeper into our eventual traps, naively assuming our momentary steps off the path are merely innocent crutches that will be discarded once our fear of failure is permanently erased by eternal success.  

The cruel irony is that each escape fulfills the very monster we are most afraid of. The more we run from failure, the more we fail. It is why so many young men who promised “I will never be like my father” grow up to be just like their father. The alternative is found, as it often is, in the paradox of actually embracing our weakness and finding that, as we teach our children to sing, “for I am weak, but he is strong.”

The great irony is found in the fact that our fear of failure holds sway over our lives precisely because of our ignorant belief that we could possibly live a failure free life. This is not an antinomian acceptance of cheap grace, but a radical belief in human frailty and the freeing recognition that the failure free life I am chasing has already been secured by the only person who could actually pull it off. Jesus’ record of perfection covers the members of his family as the greatest inheritance a child could receive. The problem for most of us is that in order to receive it, we need to admit that we need it. It means we need to put away the LSD for a night and stare deeply into the wreck we have made of our lives and cry out for help. For those courageous enough to do so will discover that the only failure I need to truly fear is the failure to admit that I have been one.