I failed in my first job out of college. I mean, I wasn’t fired. They asked me to resign. (So I guess I was fired … gently?) See, I didn’t know what to do after I graduated, so I applied to work for my college as an admissions counselor. I really liked my school and thought I might be good at convincing young students to enroll. I wasn’t. I wasn’t organized enough to manage the complicated travel schedule. I couldn’t keep track of all the papers on my messy desk. Financial aid details frustrated me. The job just wasn’t a good fit. At least that was the phrase my boss used to explain his decision.
That dark February afternoon when was the first time I’d ever experienced major failure. I’ve tried to forget all the details of the meeting. The sound of my boss’s voice as he dryly listed all of the goals I’d failed to reach. The sight of his polished desk without a single piece of paper on it. The feeling of numbness as I walked slowly out the door. I was devastated. I felt despair like I’d never felt it before. I mean, I don’t like to brag (okay, secretly I do), but I was pretty good at everything I’d tried up until that point. But in this moment, I saw all of my past successes summarily dismissed and replaced with a giant Cain-like permanent mark that would forever haunt my future employment search. I knew I was doomed to forever living with my parents and working the skate return counter at the local rink. I could already hear myself saying, “Don’t forget to tuck in your laces.”
After my failure, I found myself swinging between two extreme reactions. On the one hand, many well-meaning people told me to forget about it, it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t really a failure, etc. And I was certain that wasn’t true. I mean, it sure wasn’t a raging success. So… I overcompensated. I went to the other end of the spectrum. It was a failure, and it defined me. I sounded like Bill Murray in What About Bob? I fail. I’m failing. I’m a failure.
After wallowing in the depressing end of the spectrum for a few weeks, all the guests at my pity party went away. I grew restless. So I jumped back to the sunny side people had recommended to me. I decided to move on as if nothing had happened and I had never failed. Who, me? Fail? Pshh. Stop.
But it was impossible. I never talked about it, but my big failure was always in the back of my mind. I was sure nobody who liked me then would possibly like me once they knew. I felt like I was writing all these checks that would eventually bounce once the truth came out.
I walked on eggshells for months, refusing to discuss it. And that’s when some godly people helped me find the truth in the middle of those two extremes. Hey. I failed, but I’m not a failure. It took a while, but I eventually told somebody. And, after slowly opening my eyes, I looked around and I was still standing. And she didn’t care. So I told some others. They didn’t care either. And soon I was telling people everywhere. My friends. My students. Strangers who passed within earshot. “Psst. Hey, I was forced to resign. So, yeah. See ya.”
Two things happened. One, I was freed! The Enemy had held this over my head for far too long. Now it was over. (Ha! Take that, Satan. Eat it. Eat it for breakfast.) The truth most definitely set me free. I felt like Orlando Bloom’s character in Elizabethtown. His failure ate at him from the inside out. Once he admitted his fiasco, he was cut loose from the weight and began to find himself again. He got over his inflated idea of himself. I did too.
Second, and more importantly–I found I could use my failure experience. I became what Henri Nouwen calls a “wounded healer.” I found that telling my painful story helps others. As it turns out, everybody has failed in some way. Once I tell people about my failure, it makes them feel like maybe it’s okay that they failed too. That we’re all messed up people. That God uses messed up people.
And it is OK.
Hey. You. It is okay if you’ve failed. If no one ever told you that, hear it today. It’ll take a while to sink in. But it’s the truth, and true things have a way of holding on.