Practicing with Children

Failure as Spiritual Practice

IMG_2035–By Joanna Harader

I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago when my 6th grade daughter said she wanted to be in the summer musical at the local arts center. We got her audition song and monologue ready to go. I scheduled her audition time. And then, a few days before the audition, she freaked out: “I’m not a good singer. What if I mess up? People will be mean.”

I tried to say all the right mom things: “You have a lovely voice. You’ll do well—and even if you’re not perfect, it will be OK. Everyone will be nice. They will be just as nervous as you are. I’m so proud of you for trying something new!”

She was inconsolable. In the end, I just had to let her weep. In her room. With the door closed. For a very long time. (If you have not lived with a pre-teen, you do not know the true meaning of the phrase “wailing and gnashing of teeth.”)

What I wanted to say to her was, “Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Of course you don’t have to sing and act in front of a bunch of strangers. We’ll just cancel the audition. Don’t cry!”

But instead, I told her that she had prepared for the audition and she needed to go through with it.

In the hours before the audition, I let her weep. And we prayed. And I listened to her song and her monologue again. And I listened to her weep again. Then we went to the Arts Center and I sent her off into the theater with a bunch of other kids to face the terror of potential public humiliation.

It would have been easier to cancel the audition. But I believe failure is an important spiritual practice. It forces us to rely on God instead of ourselves. It pushes us to be vulnerable with and to trust other people. It teaches us that who we are goes so much deeper than what we can (or can’t) accomplish.

And so I waited nervously, knowing that, while truly lovely and beautiful and gifted, my daughter was far from the best singer/dancer/actor at auditions that day. I hoped she would do well—I didn’t really want her to fail. But I knew she would not be the best kid on the stage.

When she came out of her audition she wasn’t in tears, but she wasn’t happy either. Her report: “I messed up a lot and everyone else was perfect.”

IMG_0434We’re still waiting for them to post the cast list. Everyone who tries out gets in, and I’m assuming she will be placed in the chorus. (Following in her mother’s footsteps!) Then we’ll see if she wants to do the show.

But whatever part she gets and whatever she decides to do, I’m proud of her for getting through this, for doing something hard and scary. And I hope my encouragement/pushing has not traumatized her, but has helped her realize her own bravery and the benefits of trying something new.

And this whole experience has got me thinking: When is the last time I failed? I don’t mean a time that I forgot something a the grocery store or burnt supper or used a snippy tone with my children. But when is the last time I did something that I really and truly stink at?

I spend pretty much all of my time doing things that I think I can do well—many of them things that other people tell me I do well. I write. I pastor. I preach. I make cards. I bake cookies. I post snarky comments on Facebook.

I do not sing on stage. I certainly do not enter math competitions—which is something else my daughter did for the first time this year. I don’t play my cello for others. (Even playing at home is discouraging as my older daughter, the gifted violist, informs me how out of tune I am.)

If I can justify failure as a spiritual practice for my daughter, I should accept it as a spiritual practice for myself as well: a chance to rely on God rather than my own competence; a chance to do something just for the sake of doing it, not for the sake of doing it well; a chance to trust people to be kind when I mess up; a chance to practice being kind to myself; a chance to value myself for who I am, not for the success with which I accomplish tasks.

If I do decide to try out for a musical or play cello in public or enter a math competition, I can only hope my daughter will listen to me practice and let me cry and make me go through with it.

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