I’ve recently got back in touch with a dear friend from university days. Chris was one of the college chaplains at Durham university, and he was then and still is someone of great wisdom and compassion. It’s been fantastic catching up – but it’s also made me think a bit deeper about Durham days.
I only went to Durham for two years – I flunked out of second year in a somewhat spectacular manner. Suddenly from the girl who was going places, I went home feeling like an utter and complete failure. I took a low paying job and was pretty sure I’d never go back to uni. Struggling with depression, as well as the fallout from having made a total twit of myself, I actually attempted suicide a couple of times.
As I write this, it seems a little odd. Because these were events of 11 years ago, and if you’d asked me at the time what I expected life to be like, I don’t think I’d have come anywhere near where life is now – challenging, yes, but oh-so-much-more than I could ever have dreamed possible at the time.
We’re pretty scared of failure. And that makes sense – no-one wants to make a pigs ear out of anything. No-one likes getting it wrong. But I wonder sometimes if we need to try and look at it with different eyes.
For me, the failure at Durham was the gateway to a far more fulfilled life. Because when I reached rock-bottom, I guess I finally opened my eyes to the parts of myself I’d tried to hide for far too long. And as (with God’s grace, some good counselling, and a LOT of chocolate) I began to look at myself, I began to realise that life was far more than I had thought it could ever be. I wouldn’t choose to go through that experience again, but I am a far more compassionate and self-aware person for it, and I can look back and see times where God has used that experience for His glory.
I wonder sometimes if we let fear of failure, or failure itself, box us in. And the worst part about the boxes is that we’ve made them ourselves. If I think small, if I dream small, if I hide away in my little corner, I can’t muck it up again. I can’t fail, if I never try.
But something tells me that isn’t how God works. Of course, He doesn’t fail, but over the course of history there are countless examples of “failures” who’ve done incredible things. Moses. David. Paul. Abraham Lincoln. Albert Einstein. Gladys Aylwood. The list goes on…
I’m aware as I write that there’s a danger of making it sound too easy. Actually,failure is painful. Going through the fire always is. Being willing to be open and honest is excruciating. I can, for example, just about write about Durham – 11 years ago. I’m cringing much more as I write that I shouted at my son today, and I currently have a to-do list so long it could paper my living room. But I do wonder if failure can be, not just a fire but a refining fire. A fire that can, if we let it, strip away the inessential so it’s just us and God, and nothing else matters. Because when you get to that point, great things can happen.