In discussing friendship and play in his sermon this week, Rich observed that developing skill in either requires failing a lot. So in learning how to play well or make friends well, we have to learn how to fail well. That idea has been in my mind this week. What would it mean to fail well?
For some of us perfectionists, putting “fail” and “well” in the same sentence doesn’t make sense. I know that I have a hard time coming to terms with failure. I’m much more tolerant of other people’s failures than I am of my own. Once when I was confiding to my husband that I thought I had failed in relating to a friend, he said, “Sometimes you find out where the boundaries are by crossing them. You’ll know next time.” Learn from your mistakes…what a concept!
I’d say that learning from your mistakes is the second principle of failing well.
The first principle, I think, is letting yourself fail in the first place. For some of us, failure feels so terminal that we do all we can to avoid it—including refusing to take risks, avoiding close relationships, or lying to ourselves and others.
As Rich said, friendships in Jesus’ day meant mutual obligation. I’d make this a general rule: there is no intimacy without obligation. The kind of obligation depends on the kind of relationship. But if you take the risk of really knowing someone and letting them know you, you take on some responsibility for the trust that they’ve placed in you. And wherever there are responsibilities or obligations, there’s the possibility of failure.
If we want to have friendships that are more than superficial and disposable, we need to deal with our failures. So here are a few more thoughts on how to fail well.
Create a “culture” in which it’s okay to fail. If we don’t start off by trying to impress a new friend or pretending we’ve got it all together, it will be easier to deal with the failures when they happen. The church really ought to be a “friend network” where it’s okay to fail, and where we can teach one another how to do it well.
Own up. We should be willing to admit when we’ve screwed up. This is hard, but it’s the only way to have authentic friendships. Once we’ve done it a time or two, maybe failure won’t feel so terminal.
Be willing to apologize. Once we’ve figured out which failures are ours, we should apologize for them. We don’t necessarily need to shoulder all the blame, but we also can’t hide behind the fact that our friend hasn’t apologized. The only actions we can control are our own. It’s amazing how an apology can create space for a conversation that seemed impossible.
Fix what can be fixed. Sometimes we need to do more than apologize. Maybe we need to repair or replace something we damaged. Maybe we need to repair some damaged trust. If something can be put right, we should do it.
Keep short accounts. We shouldn’t let failures build up to the point that both sides are approaching the nuclear option. It’s a lot easier to sort out a small issue than it is to defuse a much bigger one later on. It’s also a lot easier to arrange to deal with a small issue. The big issues have a tendency to explode when we’re not ready.
Learn how to give and receive forgiveness. As forgiven people, we Christians ought to have this down, but we don’t. Some of us have trouble forgiving, and some of us have trouble accepting forgiveness. Or maybe all of us have trouble with both. Forgiving someone means letting them off the hook for the hurt they’ve inflicted. We don’t pretend it never happened, or that it wasn’t that bad, but we deliberately choose to bear the pain ourselves and not to make the other person suffer for what they’ve done. This is what Jesus did for us, after all. To receive forgiveness, we have to admit that we did wrong and commit to doing better. This is what we do when we repent of our sins. Neither side is easy, but both are necessary for true reconciliation to take place. When this happens, a friendship can come out stronger than it was before.
So that’s where this week’s reflections have led me. What do you think? How can we fail well?