I failed. I'm not a failure, but I definitely failed.
In 2017 I decided that I wanted to walk the Disney Half Marathon. I started a walking regime and soon was walking all over the place. My longest walks when I started were about half an hour, in May of 2019 I registered for my first 5k. I needed to be able to walk 13.1 miles by the first weekend in November.
Disney requires a 16 minute mile to enter, but it was easy to simply lie about that on the registration form. I got so I could do a 5K in 50 minutes but I couldn't maintain the pace for a 10K. I walked longer and longer distances and set my goal clearly--I wanted to finish the race. People would laugh and say "well you don't want to be last" and I'd reply firmly, "nope, it's fine to be last, I just want to finish."
Others said "you are an inspiration" and I'd say "I haven't actually done it yet."
Race day I was off like I've never walked before. I hit a record for my 5k, and looked okay at 10k, and then I hit the wall. The balloon gals, they set the minimum pace, passed me and then I passed them. When they passed me again the bicyclists bringing up the rear checked in. "You need to speed up to stay in the race."
"I can't go any faster."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm okay, I just can't move any faster."
Just after the 15k mark I got on the bus and sobbed.
I failed to finish the Disney Half Marathon.
There is plenty of place for analysis and for figuring out if I can do it next time. People were comforting and helpful and encouraging, and I had a great time at Disney that afternoon (and until 1 in the morning!) My life was not ruined, or even slightly hurt by this experience. But that doesn't change the fact that I failed to hit my goal.
And yet, almost everyone I meet tries to turn it around and say that I didn't fail. People tell me about how I succeeded at this similar thing or that, or that if the goal was different it could be reframed as a success. I walked more than 13 miles that day, all totaled. I walked 14 miles 2 weeks earlier. All that walking was good for me. Disney gives you the medal as you walk off the failure bus. Oh, and they don't call it a failure bus.
What is it that makes it so hard to accept the idea that sometimes we fail? Why do we need to re-write a failed enterprise into a success story? What would it mean to accept that failure is always an option?
In the church and in the world we are constantly encouraged to take risks, to try new things, to step out into new territory. At the same time all the stories we read and hear are about how successful the risk-taking has been. We imply that risk-taking leads to success.
But if it is really a risk, then there is the possibility of failure. Right? Where is the risk if failure is not an option? Where are our stories of failure? Where do we grapple with how we feel in the failed moment, before the story is re-written into one of success? How are we teaching ourselves and those around us that failure is okay?
After the Disney Half Marathon my sister pulled me aside privately. "I'm so proud of you. You tried something that had the potential of failure. I'm not sure we allow that very much, and you did it anyway."
I still tear up with gratitude at her words. That was the compliment that mattered. I failed, and that is good.
What have you failed at recently? How do you stumble through mistakes? I'd love to hear your stories of failure.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.