Embracing Failure

Every week at Rutba House, we have a time of confession. Years ago, we decided it was an importance practice to have in place, whether we need it this week or not. In community, we’re going to mess up. We all need space to be reconciled.

Often, when it’s time for confession, we sit in silence together and look at the ground.

But I’ve noticed something over the years: whenever one person is honest enough to confess their failure, everyone else inevitably joins them.

What’s more, we feel closer to one another when we do. Because we know we’re not perfect. But we’re forgiven. And because we are, we can get up and keep going together.

My friend Chris Heuertz has a new book out called Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community. I love it because it’s all about failure–how to fail well and be honest about it. Which makes it one of the more honest books on community I’ve read.

Kind of like confession here at Rutba House, it’s had me thinking about my own failures–and why it’s important to share them. I love to tell stories of hope, but stories of hope aren’t success stories. They almost always include failure. So, for starters, here are a few of my own failures…

1) I’ve published nearly a dozen books, and I love to talk about them in public. But I almost never talk about the first book I wrote–the one I sat up nights working on when I was a senior in high school because I was absolutely convinced that there was nothing more important in the world for me to do. I paid money that I’d earned cutting grass to have a for-hire editor tell me that the book was worthless. I was absolutely crushed. But I’ve now lived long enough to realize writing books is part of who I am. This becoming an author entailed a big first failure–and plenty more along the way.

2) Last year, I was absolutely convinced that the most important work for me to do here in our neighborhood was to start a social business in the old grocery store. I talked with investors, got neighbors excited about it, met with the city planning department, and took the idea to our community association meeting. As with all entrepreneurial ventures, there were challenges. But there was also great opportunity for some people to have good work and others to have a place where they feel good about what they’re buying.

It was, I still believe, a great idea.

But it didn’t happen. The building didn’t work out, the investors moved on, the excitement died down. What did I learn? That I’m not a business man. Yes, we need a social business. I’m praying for it everyday. But I know I’m not the person who’s going to start it. Failure taught me my limits.

3) Another thing I talked a lot about last year: making Durham a SisterCity with Rutba, Iraq. We had an invitation from the Mayor of Rutba. Seemed like a perfect fit for the vocation of a “Rutba House” in Durham, NC. What’s more, we had an incredible committee of people come together to support it–folks from Duke Hospital and from the local Iraqi community. The woman who started Durham’s SisterCity program 30 years ago, reaching out to a Russian city during the Cold War.

We had an incredible group, but by the time we got organized, the Mayor who’d made the request lost an election. And all formal communications with Rutba were cut off. Our initiative fell victim to the chaos of post-war politics in Iraq.

Another failure–and one that I can’t as easily see the “lesson” in. But there you go. We don’t always succeed.

It reminds me of the fellow who asked an old monk, “What do you do all day?”

His answer: “We fall down, and we get up.”

Chris is right. That is the way of community in this world.

  • Mary

    Do you know how hard it is to be unemployed and facing failure every day, to find an article about it, get all excited to read it and be inspired, and then to find in the very first sentence: “I’ve published nearly a dozen books…” You’re already way ahead of me. I don’t feel like reading the article now, thanks. It’s not my jumping off point. Where are the articles about the failure to know what you want.

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      I’m deeply sorry, Mary, that words meant to liberate were in fact discouraging. I can only say that I think Chris’ words in UNEXPECTED GIFTS are better than my own here. And that Jesus’ words are best of all: “Come to me, you who carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”


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