Sue’s lesson in Sunday School this week is on the pioneer trek west. While there are many lessons that one might learn from that heroic movement, it struck us that perhaps thinking about the pioneers gives us a model for how to deal with failure.
One of the portraits in our family history that always intrigued me is that of Stephen Winchester. I wrote about him last July so I won’t go into all the details again. In the picture he is an elderly man, but it is the look in his eyes that is so interesting. He is gazing to one side, grim, wary, and perhaps suspicious or maybe just defiant. When I made that comment to my mother one time she replied, “Yes, but look what he went through!”
Stephen was typical of the early Mormon converts who stayed true to the faith. They were working to establish “Zion”, that ideal society of harmony, peace, love, and communal sharing in worship of God and Jesus Christ. First they gathered to Kirtland OH, but that didn’t work out. Many went to Missouri for a few years until they were forced to leave homes again and were refugees in Nauvoo where they built a beautiful city. That didn’t last more than 7 years before they were leaving again, this time through the mud and storms of Iowa and eventually across the plains to Utah.
How did they keep going in the face of the successive failures to achieve Zion (while many others didn’t continue on)? How did they find the strength to keep starting over? What does their experience teach us about failure in our own lives, personal and otherwise?
Perhaps we need to think about failure in a more positive way, to change our expectations. It is a normal part of growth and development. Who is the writer who wrote the perfect book without revision, the artist whose first work was a masterpiece, the musician who played perfectly on picking up the instrument, the athlete who performed a 10 on the first attempt? If we think about failure as missing the mark of perfection, then we are all failures, over and over again.
I have always liked the quote from Oscar Wilde that experience is the name that men give to their mistakes. Without mistakes, we can gain no experience, show no improvement, make no progress. The question then becomes not “have we failed?, but what have we done because of that experience?
The scriptures are plain with the answer to failure: faith and repentance, prayer and action. To exercise faith is to believe that Christ has the power to redeem us from our errors, and to try again. To repent is to turn toward God and goodness in that trying. There is something of euphoria in starting over, in making another attempt using what we have learned from our experience. I think about all the rebuilding in Texas and Florida that will occur in the wake of the recent storms. To build something new is wonderful, if we learn from the errors of the past.
Above all perhaps, enduring failure only occurs if we quit, if we don’t try again. That is the true tragedy of life - not that someone has tried and failed but that they have given up. The pioneers never did quit. They kept moving on and rebuilding until they accomplished their best version of Zion, imperfect as it still was. And if we keep trying in this life, in faith, turning to the good, we will be able to continue the process in our next existence. Becoming complete, or perfect, may not be possible here. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”