Aleteia

Struggling to accept failure? A Benedictine monk has some advice for you

SAD WOMAN
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Failure can be a great opportunity, if we have the eyes to see it.

We cannot escape failure — it is an essential part of what makes us human. For German Benedictine monk Anselm Grün, this painful experience can hide a real opportunity for renewal and opening up to God while also providing us with a possibility to start anew and be happier. 

How do you define failure?

Father Anselm Grün : In German scheitern (to fail) comes from sheit (a log, a piece of wood) and from scheiden (to cut, to fragment). Hence, to fail is to fragment that which made one a unit. Once whole, it is now broken, the initial project cannot be completed and everything is in pieces. For example, the word scheiden is used to indicate a failed marriage.

We also find this word in Abschied, a “goodbye.” Each mistake is a goodbye to an ideal image we have created of life and of ourselves. In Verscheiden, which means “to die,” failure relates to death. Something into which we have put all our hopes dies. Either in my love life, in my vocation, or things I have been involved in, instead of obtaining something I had the right to expect, I obtained a negative result. The dream is crushed. 

What are the conditions when this misfortune could transform into an opportunity to grow?

We can take time to stop and think about whether or not up to now our life’s goal has been too unilateral and too narrow-minded. In addition, we should also “distinguish” — analyze the reason that led to our failure, and how we can put the pieces back together and begin our life anew.

Failure could encourage us to gather up the fragments of our life to become the whole person that God wants us to be. To me, being happy is not only being in peace with myself, but also being in peace with this unique and exceptional “image” that God has of me. Failure points precisely to the fact that I have substituted this divine “image” with another one that corresponds more to my own phantasms than to the will of God.

Many people fall without an opportunity to rise up again after failure …

This is correct. We cannot judge. Many people have hard lives and I don’t know whether I would have the ability to cope, had I been in their place. But I also see people who get bogged down in their suffering because they are not ready to break away from the false ideas they have about  life. They are so disillusioned with themselves and so “disappointed” with God, they abandon all hope. It is precisely in failure that it becomes important to call on our faith in God, in this very God who came back from the dead and who wishes to raise me from the tomb of darkness and failure.

Each failure is accompanied by the sense of guilt. Is that not another obstacle to happiness?

Guilt can torment and paralyze. Deep down in our hearts – whether it is a couple that fails, a monk who abandons his orders, or a priest his ministry – we all think that we should have succeeded, that we should have persevered. Have we given in to selfishness? Have we allowed ourselves to be influenced by the modern day tendency for personal fulfillment? Does not our path consist of difficulties to be carried like a cross till the end? But there is no point in suppressing the guilt; we need to face it and closely examine it.

Could the sense of guilt sometimes warn us that we have reached a dead-end?

It could actually draw our attention to the fact that we are passing by some other opportunity: which consists in being more authentic. Guilt could open us up, on a condition that we don’t succumb to it, or to the lack of accountability. The feeling of guilt reminds us that it is impossible to go through life without getting our hands dirty. It shows us that we are not and can never be perfect. It destroys our peremptory sense of self-assurance, so that God can penetrate into our hearts. 

We have to expose our faults to the Lord and believe in his forgiveness. So, we can forgive ourselves and free ourselves from the feeling of guilt. The confession is a big help in this.

Can the failure of others destroy our happiness?

It helps to destabilize us. It forces us to question our own sincerity, makes us fearful of transforming our own lives. It exhorts us to follow the recommendation of St. Paul: “So, if you think you stand firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

When we analyze our life in all sincerity, we discover failure, broken illusions, and impasses. We are people who have failed. Yet, even in our failure we should preserve our faith in the words of St. Paul: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

How would you define happiness compared to inner peace?

To me, happiness is the expression of inner peace – a sentiment that overwhelms me when I am at peace with myself. In German, happiness means “successful life,” an expression signifying a fulfilled life.

We cannot “create” happiness around us, however we can create peace. I can contribute to this peace that will bring me happiness. Peace means that I say “yes” to myself. In Latin, the word pax means “to talk with one’s own enemies.” I have to talk with these enemies of my soul. They could become my friends if I come to an agreement with them. So, I no longer have to fear them. 

According to you, what are the conditions for real inner peace?

It is precisely to say “yes” to oneself. Erasmus tells us that happiness is “when a person is ready to be what he is.” Another condition is to live with all our senses, to live with intensity, to take our life into our own hands. I am happy when everything is “on a roll”. But for my life to be “on a roll,” it requires of me to renounce my selfishness and to turn to other people.

What do you think is the main obstacle to happiness?

Exaggerated expectations – an illusion that everything we do must be perfect. But to be happy, we need to accept to be like everybody else. The illusions lead us to fear – the fear of not attaining our ideal, the fear of being judged by the others, the fear to displease God. So, we drag our ideals behind us, like ball and chain, and feel unhappy. Another obstacle, it seems to me, is consumerism, as if we could buy everything, even happiness…

Can we ever be completely happy in this world?

No, we cannot be completely happy. Even if we experience great happiness for a space of a short time, we discover within us the ardent desire for an even greater happiness. In fact, only God can fill our desire for happiness and the “successful life.” When we experience God, we feel completely happy. Like Teresa of Avila, we could repeat that “God alone is enough.” However, immediately after, we again feel that we are drawing away from God and are thus dissatisfied. The failure to fulfill our desire for happiness and the disappointment this realization leads us to bring us back closer to God. Finally, we can only encounter true happiness once we are dead.

So, failure is an opportunity?

It could only be one for a person who has accepted to be stripped of everything. In this case of abandon, God could appear to such a person in a guise of the one who descended to the very bottom of our inanity, his son Jesus Christ. St. John of the Cross was convinced that the image of Christ Crucified can only mark someone who has stripped himself of everything.

A person who has failed often goes through this “death” of his ego, the mystics mention, without having to work for it. Once the ego is gone, he loses his confidence, he has nothing left. It is from the bottom of this void that he experiences God in a whole new way. When he no longer has anything to build on, God reveals himself as the true foundation of life. A person like that can no longer wage on his professional life, on his relationship, on monastic life…Everything has been taken away from him, and he finds himself totally stripped. And it is precisely this bareness that reveals God as the real fire that ignited the Burning bush.

The Burning Bush is a good illustration of the spiritual experience of failure: the loss of all assurance can lead us to the mystery of divine love. Moses saw himself as someone who had failed, he felt useless and it is at the very moment when he had nothing left that his vocation as a great prophet was revealed to him. But he had to take his sandals off to approach the mystery of God.

Interview taken by Luc Adrian