“I’m a Loser” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 12, 2014
Call to Worship – from Rosalynn Carter
You must accept that you might fail; then, if you do your best and still don’t win, at least you can be satisfied that you’ve tried. If you don’t accept failure as a possibility, you don’t set high goals, you don’t branch out, you don’t try—you don’t take the risk. –
A little over a week ago grades for the fall semester were due at Andover Newton. I believe I have reputation as a difficult grader. In graduate school there is not much of a grading curve; it is really from A to B-. I was taught that anything below a B was a failure, and I recall a friend at the University of New Hampshire begging the professor to change a C+, because he felt it would ruin his career. This is always a stressful time for students because you feel like you have to make the grade or you will be a failure for life. I quit playing football my senior year in college, because I felt that would enhance my chances to get A’s, making it an easier path into a doctoral program in history. We live in a time of grade inflation, as reflected in the publicity about Harvard last fall.
Apparently, studies show that if you sign up for a class there you are almost assured of getting an A. Some say the difficult part about Harvard is getting admitted, but there is no competition over what grade you will receive in a course once you have matriculated there. Then someone told me about one professor at Harvard who apparently gives out two sets of grades. Officially the registrar receives the requisite number of A ‘s for all students, but then the students are also informed of what they actually achieved in the class, a B, a C or whatever, but their official resume continues to show an A. We might ask if everyone at Harvard expects an A in every course, and if so, is that because they think they are the best students in the world, or if they actually do work that is worthy of an A, or finally, maybe they just think everyone deserve A’s. In a culture where we put so much emphasis on winning and losing, here at Harvard, everybody wins. But if everybody wins, then what meaning does it have?
Now you might think that clergy as religious leaders are beyond these winning and losing, success and failure kinds of attitudes. Aren’t we supposed to be the ones who say it’s not about winning and losing, but how you play the game? We have an ethical approach where everyone is treated fairly and gets a chance to play, right? We reject the old Vince Lombardi approach; that famous football coach who said, winning isn‘t everything, it’s the only thing. But in grading seminarians, as holy as they may be, I have not found that to be the case. They want the grade, even though no church I have served has ever looked at what I received for a grade in New Testament 101.
The most telling example was a student who took my polity course that I taught online for ten years. This student emailed me the day the course was finished to tell me what an amazing teacher I was. This course, she said, had the best resources, and my responses to her papers were always insightful, prompt, and supportive. She loved my course. I felt like the greatest teacher since Socrates – my methods, my questions, my response to her was all-superb. I was floating on air. But then a few days later she received her grade and evaluation from me, which, shall we say, was less than stellar. Suddenly I was Socrates no more. In fact, she was ready to give me the poison. This was no Welcome Back Kotter, but a let’s hang this guy by his fingernails response. After she received the grade, I went from wonderful to mean, sexist, and unfair. In the wink of an eye, I was terrible, even though what she learned had not changed one iota. I had this experience again this term, where someone thought they deserved a better grade than they received. Whereas I said the work was not up to par, the student said that what they did was deserving of an A. Of course I have my own standards, and expect students to meet those standards. One question to ponder is whether students today have lost a sense of standards, and think they always deserve A’s. And if everybody gets an A, then there are no standards.
The life of Socrates is a good case in point. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ friend Chaerephon asks the oracle at Delphi if anyone is wiser than Socrates. The Oracle says that no one is wiser. Socrates saw a paradox in the response, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. So he decided to test the paradox by asking presumed wise people—political leaders, playwrights and poets, historians and the like—to prove the Oracle wrong. After he questioned him or her, Socrates could see that each person knew something, but in the grand scheme of things, they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized the Oracle was right. People who think of themselves as wise are not, which, paradoxically, made Socrates the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Unfortunately this understanding of where true wisdom lies made the wise guys, you know the Harvard types, publicly look foolish. This led to Socrates’ downfall and he was subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock.
It is enlightening to realize that Socrates, the person who was considered the greatest teacher who ever lived, believe he possessed no wisdom. He was humble. He was aware that he was flawed, and yet he was also aware that those who think they are wise are indeed fools. As Paul wrote in I Corinthians 3: “If any one of you thinks he [or she] is wise by the standards of this age, he [she] should become a “fool” so that he [she] may become wise.” Perhaps the implication is that we should have a sense of our own failings. This is not a problem for most of us. We may have grown up in a religion that emphasized how sinful we are, worthless in talent, skill and deed. Or perhaps we had teachers who taunted or mistreated us for some academic or behavioral shortcoming. We stuttered when we tried to answer or were whacked on the fingers with a ruler for speaking out of turn, or were obviously not as smart as our older brother. More often than not we remember having a bad self-image. We were losers compared to that star-studded sibling who was handsome, athletic and smart rather than fat, clumsy and bumbling. Losers were never captains or cheerleaders or winners in the conventional sense. Many of us rebelled against the stigmata of being losers, but also realized that the value where you must win at all costs destroys your soul.
Not long ago I saw the movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It had been years since I had read James Thurber’s story, but it was apparent from the beginning of the movie that it bore little resemblance to the original. In the movie, the digital age has caused Life Magazine to end publication. Walter Mitty works in the photo lab, and is a shlumpy guy who gets bullied by the new boss, who is managing the transition from print to digital, when most of the loyal employees will lose their jobs. The original story features a man who imagines becoming the brave fighter pilot, or the doctor who can save a life, and is suddenly awakened from these brief intervals where he gets lost to the world in thought by a wife who thinks he is either driving too fast, or must have a temperature. I relate because it is not unknown for me to get lost in thought, and not be aware of what is happening around me. The story ends when Mitty shows the bravery of facing the firing squad. Is it real? Perhaps the point is that we do not have to be heroes, but rather we all show bravery when we face life’s difficult challenges. We are all Walter Mitty’s who may imagine ourselves as heroes saving the person in distress, and sometimes it actually happens, but at least we are brave in our own way for facing life’s everyday challenges.
Of course we imagine the original Walter Mitty as a kind of loser. He is driving around Waterbury waiting for his wife to get her hair done. He lives a dull, humdrum life, and his fantasy life or daydreams spice it up. We all have certain fantasies about ourselves, some best not to talk about on a Sunday morning. In the case of the new movie the modern Walter Mitty actually becomes the hero he dreams about, not just the imaginary super hero who saves the three-legged dog, or romances the beautiful girl. His hard work and dedication result in a transformation from 90 pound weakling to a strong virile guy who jumps from helicopters in the arctic, and faces sharks in pursuit of the holy grail, which in this case happens to be a picture for the farewell issue of Life. In the end he gets the girl and keeps his values, and while that may underscore a winner take all world, the picture he finds does celebrate the original theme from Walter Mitty. It recognizes all the staff, the faceless nobodies, who made the success of the magazine possible While we should all strive to have wonderful adventures, it is also helpful not to transform the person into something different, that is presumed better than what he is, but to see more of what a winner he is in the struggle to make meaning in his everyday life. Sure we all need those fantastic dreams, but sometimes when we live by fantasies, they prevent us from securing a meaningful life with what we have right now.
If you visit the church parsonage on Marshall Street, and the minister invites you to go all the way to the third floor, you will find a vast array of trophies. You might think David Ortiz himself was hanging out there. Here you will see little gold covered plastic baseball and soccer players representing year after year of participation in youth sports. I don’t think any of my children ever won a championship, and neither did I during my childhood, but the difference is I don’t have any trophies, and they have a stockpile.
These days we give children trophies merely for participating, and some seem to value the trophy and the pizza party at the end more than the actual game itself. The cultural expansion of awarding prizes to everybody occurred when my older son was growing up. It’s a big business now, but what is the point? Perhaps it is compensation for how badly much of my generation felt because we never were never recognized, and so today everybody receives a trophy, and are told they swing the bat beautifully. The problem is at some point they are going to realize that missing the ball 20 times in a row means you stink at baseball, and perhaps you need another activity where you can succeed. OR even better perhaps you have a skill that needs to be developed, but if you are told you are already great, you never bother to develop it. Eventually, if you don’t fail, and if you don’t have someone teach you how to do something better, someone will tell you that you swing the bat more like Ortiz’ seven year son, than Big Papi himself.
This nonstop recognition may be reflective in the presumption that every student deserves an A, and thinks I am a terrible teacher if I don’t give them one. Studies show that this constant telling children how great they are does not help them succeed, and in fact may cause them to underachieve. You need to fail in order to succeed is even a simply biological fact. Think of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It is not the smartest or the biggest or strongest that survives. It is the one that is most able to adapt. The one who sees problems, and adjusts to changes, and lives on as the environment changes. This fall there was a bomb threat at Harvard where four buildings on the Quad were shut down. The first thing I said to Andrea was some guy didn’t want to take his final, and so he found a way to shut down the school. I was right. Now he is in big trouble. But we might speculate that someone like him might have failed before, and he will not allow himself to do so again. Many students say they would rather cheat, or in this case do something drastic, than risk failure after having experienced it once. They can’t fail.
Do you know if Hosea Ballou, the greatest Universalist preacher of all time had not been able to admit failure, adjust, and try again, we might never have had a Universalist movement in America. Ballou, Universalism’s greatest leader in the 19th century, failed miserably more than once before he ever succeeded. It was the fall of 1791, and he had just embraced the faith. Two of his mentors were present at a home church in Richmond, New Hampshire, but this made him more nervous. Finally, he stood up, but his throat was dry, sweat began to pour down, and his knees grew unsteady. He was able to read his scripture passage, but it was halting and slow. Then he tried to deliver his sermon, but nothing came out. Nothing. And never did. He soon sat down. Yet he was determined that his preaching career would not end in such utter failure. He tried again, but it was almost as bad. He got a few words out, but he kept starting and stopping, and finally had to sit down before he got to his point. Yet it did not deter him. Friends and family knew he had the talent and the faith, and they continued to encourage him to learn from his mistakes. Try it again. Soon he not only found that he did not have terrible failures, but he was growing into becoming the great Universalist prophet.
Please note that Ballou during his trial period was provided with encouragement, not praise. No one told him he was great, when he was terrible. It could be that he would never have succeeded in his chosen profession, and hopefully would have had the wisdom to try something entirely different. But when we need improvement, or when we make a mistake, we need to have that pointed out to us, if we are ever going to succeed. If we are only told how great we are, and only get the award, there is no impetus for improvement. In fact, we are sometimes afraid to tell someone how he or she can improve, because they don’t take criticism well. This is precisely the problem if they have not been told how to improve in the past. They will just think they are great all the time. Do we want our children to learn that there are no obstacles in life? Then when they do encounter obstacles, they will just give up quicker or get angry because they feel no one can criticize them. We also may give the impression that you should succeed just by showing up, perhaps like they do at Harvard. Hey, didn’t the guy with bomb threat know he was getting an A anyway?
A few months ago the New York Times columnist, Ashley Merryman suggested that we should fight for a kid’s right to lose. That may sound odd in a country when wining often seems to be the only thing, or where many of us never received recognition for our athletic achievements or feel like losers about most things we try. But of course an automatic trophy would not have taught me anything about life. It would have given me a false sense of my own greatness, which would have been more painful once I realized I wasn’t great at all. The true reward is not some trophy, but getting back up after I was knocked down, trying again, and actually learning a skill by doing it hundreds of times. No one said to me that’s fine after doing something once. Perseverance after a set back, teamwork and personal improvement were far better lessons about life than being told I was the greatest. We learn so much more from mistakes than we do from false successes. Failing is never losing. It is another opportunity to learn.
The other important lesson in failure is that it often leads not only to improvement and success because we learn from our mistakes, but actually fosters creativity. Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the building of the railway line that connected Boston and the Hudson River. It had to run through Hoosac Mountain. The president of Amherst College, a geologist said drilling through the mountain would be easy. He was totally wrong. It was a nightmare. But if they had known how difficult it would be, they never would have undertaken it. That sounds like the trials of parenting, where hopefully we can also respond to our errors and miscalculations. In the case of the Hoosac Tunnel, its completion was extremely difficult, but it was ultimately an enormous success evidenced by the boon produced by all the western Massachusetts factories that resulted in tremendous economic growth. Ignorance allowed progress to occur.
Gladwell speculates that failures or ignorance often force us to be creative, and moreover, creativity often does not occur unless we are forced into it by circumstances. If we have to know everything before we act, and are 100% assured of success, then we will never act. This is worth thinking of in the context of putting in new heating systems in churches. The entrepreneur he says, takes risks, but they do not see themselves as taking risks because they operate under the delusion that what they are doing is not risky. They believe it will work. They can’t turn back mid-mountain, so they find a way to get it done. It’s too late to turn back now. Success then grows from the pulling together of other resources, and finding creative ways to move forward. This helps explain why Christianity seems to prefer the repentant sinner to the person who never strays from the path. For one thing, they are usually a more interesting person. But the larger truth is that when we see our failings and learn from them, and are less sure of how great we are, we are more like Socrates. We are deeper, we are more open, we are more vulnerable to each other and able to enter into trusting relationships, and are less guarded and assured. When we acknowledge how mistake prone we can be, we can also see hope for true salvation.
Closing Words – from E. M Forster
Failure or success seems to have been allotted to men [and women] by their stars. But they retain the power of wriggling, of fighting with their star or against it, and in the whole universe the only really interesting movement is this wriggle.