Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
~ Samuel Beckett, Westward Ho.
For the last several months I have been coming up against many of my own limits, and many of the limits of the communities in which I participate.
Thus, on the personal level, after approximately ten years of going deeper and deeper into relationships with those ‘on the margins’ of society — from going out once a week handing out bag lunches to hosting sex workers in our home for weekly dinners, having wanted criminals sleep on our couch, being a 24/7 contact person for other friends struggling with addictions and suicide, and so on — I appear to have hit a wall of sorts and find that most of the time I’m just… well… tired. The result of this is that I neglect friendships that I have developed, I withdraw from the people and places around me, and I’m not always there for friends in crises — friends who often have nobody else to whom they can turn. Not surprisingly, this leaves me feeling frustrated with myself. I am trying to live a life that is other-focused… no wait… I tell myself that I am trying to live a life that is other-focused, yet I quickly come up against my own limits and I actually don’t seem able to break through them. Of course, this could simply be a stopping point along the way, perhaps as time passes, as I develop further disciplines, as I learn more of how to love (and be loved), I might be able to progress further down this road. For now, however, it is hard to be at this impasse.
On the communal level, I have twice tried, and failed, to establish an ‘intentional Christian community’ rooted in the inner-city. The first one I tried lasted for a year and an half and then fell apart. The second one fell apart before it even got off the ground. A third effort might be in the works, but everything is so vague and tentative that I’m not holding my breath. I lot of people like to talk about this sort of endeavour (after all, ‘new monasticism’ is an hot topic in Christian circles these days) but not a whole lot of people actually like to take the dive and commit to something serious or even a little bit daring. This especially frustrates me. It seems to me that — if the Church truly is possessed by the Spirit of life, and holds the potential to be an agent of new creation within our present world — a lot of my hopes depend upon the Church actually living as the Church. The problem is, I can’t seem to find this Church. Sure, some churches are taking good steps in this or that direction… but if I look for a community of disciples that looks anything like the community Jesus gathered (and the community reflected in Acts) I’m hard-pressed to come up with (m)any local examples. So, I look to the Church for salvation… but I’ve given up on holding my breath.
On another communal level, I have gotten to know the social services field fairly well over the last ten years, and have mostly found social service agencies to be amazing in their inability to live up to their inherent potential. It is sad, but no longer surprising, to discover how quickly agencies devolve into corporate entities more interested in building their own brand-status and meeting the expectations of their donors, rather than being entities that genuinely act in the interest of the people whom they claim to serve. What was surprising (at first) was the observation that this is so widespread in social service agencies. So, I’m not saying people should avoid this field (I work in it myself), I’m just saying that one shouldn’t be surprised if the largest obstacles one encounters in working with street-involved people, end up coming from the social service agencies themselves.
So, what am I left with? Personal failures, a failed Church, and failed social service agencies.
However, the only way I know how to respond to these many failures is by pressing on and continuing to fail. For some odd reason, although this failure is difficult, I don’t find it entirely unexpected. You see, that ‘odd reason’ is that both Jesus and Paul provide us with prototypes of our own Christian lives — and they, like so many other saints, were remarkable failures (and don’t even get me started on the prophets). Paul, despite his talk of living life in the power of the Spirit, and despite his desperate and pleading letters, seems to have failed to develop many communities that lived up to (or anywhere close to) his expectations. In fact, it seems like a lot of his communities got away from him. It wasn’t until after Paul’s death that his true impact was felt. In life, however, Paul was likely regarded by many — and perhaps even himself — as a failure (just take a read through 2 Corinthians, and you’ll see what I’m talking about).
Similarly, Jesus also failed. Despite his efforts to bring the good news to the people he loved, despite his efforts to unite the ‘healthy’ and the ‘sick’, the ‘righteous’ and the ‘sinners’, the ‘privileged’ with the ‘marginalised’, despite his efforts to show a ‘way of peace’ to a people heading down the road of self-destruction, he found that, by and large, people refused to listen, refused to act, refused to follow. And so he, too, died, forsaken by God, and abandoned by all except a few faithful women. Like Paul, his true impact wasn’t felt until after his death — because it was the resurrection that changed everything. It was the vindication of the Son of Man, that transformed a failed messianic pretender into the risen Lord.
But we can, perhaps, take things one step further. With a great deal of hesitation, could we not also argue that the history of God’s engagement with creation, is also an history of failure? Let’s sketch out some of the broader points:
(1) God creates a good and pleasing world and places the man and the woman in a good place… but this fails to work as intended, the man and the woman are expelled from the garden, and death enters the world;
(2) therefore, God becomes tired of watching death develop into murder and rapacious living and so he tries to start anew — flooding the world, so that only one righteous man, and his family, survive… but this fails as this man, Noah, goes astray, and once again things begin to fall apart;
(3) thus, noting that ‘final solutions’ don’t end up being so final, God decides to choose another two people — Abraham and Sarah — to parent a nation that is called to be a blessing to all the other nations of the world… but this also fails as this nation, Israel, goes astray and, rather then serving others, seeks to become like the others in power and domination;
(4) therefore, running out of options, God chooses to become flesh and become a member of this nation, so that their destiny can be fulfilled, and so that a new people, possessed by God’s own Spirit, can go forth and be agents of new creation in the world… but this Spirit-empowered people also ends up losing its way. And we find ourselves where we are today.
What is the history of God’s engagement with the world? Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
So, given that humanity is created in the image of God, perhaps this means that it is in our failing that we are most like God. What is our calling as Christians? Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Because, and here we find ourselves in the realm of mystery, I think that it might be through our failures that we come to the place where we triumph. Here, apart from the way in which this seems to be the model provided for us by Jesus and Paul (who, through a series of failures, end up overcoming far many than any expected or imagined), I am reminded of the words of Žižek. When speaking of previous (failed) revolutions, Žižek emphasises the fact that, if we wait for the revolution to arrive (so that we can join in), it will never arrive. Rather, he argues, the revolution only arrives after a series of failed attempts. Hence, Žižek argues, the revolutionary must have the patience of losing (the battles) in order to win (the final fight). Thus, he concludes:
These past defeats accumulate the utopian energy which will explode in the final battle: “maturation” is not waiting for “objective” circumstances to reach maturity, but the accumulation of defeats (cf. In Defense of Lost Causes, 392).
This is why Žižek continually cites the quotation from Beckett that has served as the conerstone of this post. I can only hope that what he says is true. Because if it is not… then what are we left with?