Faith / Ordinary Life

Experimentation, Failure and Faith

When I was a boy I experimented with wood burning (an aunt gave me a set for my birthday), carpentry (I wanted to make a doll’s bed for my sister’s birthday), paint-by-numbers (another birthday present), and building model airplanes (another present—I had lots of aunts). I never pursued any of those activities beyond those initial attempts because I was convinced the finished products were flawed (which was true) and that this meant failure on my part (which wasn’t true, but I believed it).

In a fallen world finite creatures can imagine failure in places where it does not exist. It is because we are finite that experimentation and learning must occur. Being finite, we do not have all skills, nor can we see all possibilities, or anticipate all the various permutations that can arise. So we try, and learn, and then try again. When our first efforts at some task are less than perfect it is not because we have failed but because we are in the process of learning. Whether we like it or not, that process never allows anything close to perfection in the early stages. It doesn’t allow perfection in later stages either, by the way, but that’s another story.

It’s easy to believe this when it comes to wood burning and carpentry and paint-by-numbers, and building model planes from kits supplied by aunts at one’s birthday. It is harder to believe when the stakes are higher and we are grown up.

As adults we assume that we should know where we are headed in life and what direction our work should take. And it’s true that some people know the vocational direction of their lives almost from the beginning. They have always wanted to be a physician or an artist or a farmer and so they do. There are some hurdles, perhaps, and moments of indecision but those are blips on the path, not a reason to question the path itself. Or they are on a career path they enjoy so the issue seems settled, unless some spasm in the economy messes up their plans.

But consider that assumption again: that as adults we should know where we are headed in life and what direction our vocation should take. I would argue that is unwarranted. We are finite creatures, and that means we can’t know all there is to know even about ourselves. Many of us find our way into faithfulness not by having a master plan, but simply by being faithful moment by moment. And that is our calling before God: to be faithful, here and now, in the ordinary of our lives, whatever that ordinary happens to look like. We consider our options, seek to make the wisest choice possible, and proceed. Sometimes various options are possible and so experimentation is necessary. Which one will be most satisfying? How can we know until we try? And who says that just because we got some degree we now need to work in that sphere of life? Maybe graduate school was intended to teach us perseverance, and our true calling is something altogether different. Perhaps our gifts don’t translate directly into a marketable skill, so we’ll need to try some things before we find what we’re meant to do now.

Time is such a strange companion, you never can predict
If days will drag as years fly by, yet the minutes slowly tick
I stood on that platform waiting for a train from a distant land
Didn’t know where I was going just a suitcase in my hand

[From “Gone” on Paper Birch by Karen Choi (2012)]

Failure for the Christian comes not from being finite but fallen. Failure comes not from experimentation but from disobedience—not from not knowing where we are headed but from refusing to pack a suitcase and catch the train. Let’s help each other live as if we believed that to be true.