May 3, 2005

Lessons in Failing

I was sitting around a camp fire in the Fall Creek Falls State Park about 4 months ago, letting these women psychoanalyze me. I was freezing, because no matter how mild a night it was, it was still WINTER, and I’d been living in the Land of Eternal Spring for the last 3 months. But the company I had with me and the millions of stars that looked down on us while we talked made up for any temporary discomfort I might have experienced due to the cold.

I don’t remember all of our conversation from that night, but I do remember what was going through my mind almost the entire night. It was during those weeks I had at home over Christmas that I was hoping to figure out my future. I desperately wanted answers or guidance or advice or anything so long as it involved someone else telling me what to do next. I’d had the talk with my parents about not going to seminary, and I’d survived it without breaking down. I even learned that my parents are almost completely clueless when it comes to understanding just how hard I’ve tried to please them and not ever let them down.

But still, I had no answers about where I was going next. As we settled down by the campfire that night and began talking, I kept thinking—This is it. If they can’t help me figure out what’s going on with me, then I don’t know who can. I did feel bad because all I wanted to do was talk about myself and my situation. The radio station in my head was turned to worry, all day and all night. I was so freaked out by my future that I was pretty much an obsessed, self-absorbed, walking pity party.

So, I waited my turn, listened as well as I could, and tried to find the words to explain to them just what was in my heart. I finally found some way to bring it up in the conversation, I don’t remember how, but I’m sure it was a well-timed and subtle segue-way. You know, like yeah, I think that’s a great idea for our canoe trip, it reminds me of that time when I was trying to figure out WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH MY LIFE. PLEASE HELP ME!!
But in the way of truly wise friends, they didn’t tell me what to do. No suggestions, advice, or handbooks were given out, much to my utter disappointment. Instead, I found myself at a fireside therapy session. A few well placed questions later, and I was diagnosed. The verdict: I am afraid of failing. At the time, I thought, Well, duh. But why aren’t you telling me something useful?! Why aren’t you giving me the answers?

4 months later, I am finally beginning to understand what they meant.

I failed here in Guatemala.

I know many people will tell you otherwise. Even my boss, who I feel I disappointed the most, won’t tell you that I failed. But, in my mind, if I were to be completely honest with you about this experience, I would tell you that this feels like a failure. And that’s what matters more than the factual reality of the situation…I feel like I failed.

And to be honest, that feeling has been around for a long time. I’m not sure I ever stood a chance with myself. I have had such positive job experiences in the past, that my expectations for myself and for my reception here were ridiculously high. The moment I first felt that I wasn’t the right person for this job came within the first couple of weeks, and it sabotaged almost any chance I had for success. This wasn’t going to be Jasper, where I had been “the best intern they’d had in a decade.” And it wasn’t the coffee shop, where my boss immediately trusted me with great responsibility and said that they would have never made it through the first 6 months without me. And it certainly wasn’t like any camp job that I’d ever had, where I’d usually bide my time until I eventually became known for being a good counselor who worked hard and was trusted.

Looking back, I am surprised my head was able to fit on the plane coming down here.

The truth of the matter is that I haven’t ever really flopped majorly before. (Except for maybe something piano related.) When it comes to working, though, I can usually be counted on to do my job and do it well. School was easy, my parents instilled a good work ethic in me, and I’d just kind of coasted along until I got here.

I wasn’t the right person for the job. I don’t know if that is my fault or if it’s my boss’s fault or if it’s really anyone’s fault. But the fact remains, my personality was not the one needed to do what was supposed to be done here. And regardless of whether or not it was my fault, because I had been hired to do this specific job and I wasn’t able to do it, I felt like I was failing.

I could have told you all this last December. I could have told you that I wasn’t right and that I felt horrible that I was letting my boss down. I could have told you that it was bothering me that I couldn’t do what they wanted me to do. And I could have told you that it made me miserable to be here because of that.

But what I am beginning to realize is that this experience isn’t about the failing. Did I succeed in doing everything in my job description? No. Did I convince my boss and the people I worked with that I was a hard-working talented person? No. Did I accomplish any of my personal goals in taking this job? No. Did I learn how to be a youth minister? No. Did I stick it out and come to work every day, even when I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything and that I was ill-equipped to handle any of the challenges given to me? Yes. And that’s what matters. I may have failed at 99% of what I came down here to do...but at least I showed up to play.

They were right. I hate failing. I take it really hard. It’s made the last year incredibly frustrating--probably unnecessarily so in some cases. It’s taken huge whacks at my confidence in myself and my abilities and talents. It first manifested itself in my doubting my ability to do youth ministry and it’s continued to sneak it’s way into varied aspects of my personality as the months have passed. It’s at the point where I can’t tell anymore if my doubts come from valid conclusions or ones that have been tainted by the failure I’ve felt here.

I’m going home next week, and I’ve been trying to reflect on my time here in Guatemala. It’s hard to do that without being completely removed from the situation yet. I know, however, that my ability to process this is going to be greatly hindered by the schedule that I am going to have to keep once I step off the plane. It’s also hard to do with this lens of failure I have been looking through.
In many ways, this has been one of the most enriching, life-altering experiences of my life, and it seems incongruous to call that a failure. If I separate the two experiences—the living in a foreign country and the internship, then I have two very different tales to tell. Living outside the US, even for this short period of time, has opened my eyes, my mind, and my heart in ways that I am just beginning to understand. I will probably continue to see the effects of this experience for years to come. I hope so. I don’t ever want to forget what it was like to step out and get a new perspective on the world I thought I understood.

Someone asked me last week if I was glad that I came to Guatemala. And I was able to answer them with a resounding yes. They then asked me why I was so emphatic about it. And I was able to tell them: Because I learned how to fail in Guatemala.

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