Economic capitalism has a psychological twin, one that is not as bold and brash as its profit-obsessed counterpart, but if we look into the subtle details of our interior universe we find it hidden there.
This is emotional capitalism, in which our emotional abilities are our capital. An entire branch of positive psychology focuses on the four currencies of psychological capital: self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and perseverance. All four were tested individually and together, and their usefulness in obtaining personal, social and professional/organisational benefits has been proven empirically. It is only natural that these beautiful character traits would produce equally beautiful results.
But this model of psychological capital is inevitably flawed, not because it relates to some wrong values, but because it relates to too few values. In this scheme of psychological positivism, failure is not valuable as an experience unless it is followed as soon as possible by a success. In other words, failure only makes sense if it is put in the service of self-edification, through optimism, hope and perseverance.
Yet life does not always consider the psychological models that are fashionable, but stubbornly show us that, in addition to the “trampoline failure”—one that propels us to even more advanced peaks of development after a small unpleasant detour—there is still failure-failure; that is, the failure that can never be transformed into success, the failure from which we cannot recover. This kind of failure is not reserved only for those most unfortunate among us. Instead, we all experience it at some point in life.
Theologian John Swinton, in his most recent volume, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship, critiques the way in which our society came to a distorted way of interacting with less-abled people because of the mantra, “Time means money.” This ubiquitous motto warps relations with those who live in a different time pace. In English, the economic significance of the “time is money” construct is enhanced by many forms of expression: time can be “invested” or “lost”, it can be “wasted”, it can be “saved”, it can even be “gained.” Time is theoretically a resource, but because of the vicious circle we are all sucked into, time has become our master, and we have become hamsters, endlessly running on a wheel to nowhere.
Even in our conversations, although we often don’t realise it, we have the expectation that others will adapt to our pace; that’s what the good manners of conversation require. “People with communication impairments are often excluded from conversation and chit chat because its etiquette of these situations does nothing to allow them time to express what they wish to say…” When we are dealing with a person with cognitive disabilities (such as the increasingly common Alzheimer’s), we realise that there are people who experience time as a different dimension than we understand it, and this does not make them any less valuable. Moreover, it is only a matter of time before we ourselves become out of sync with the “etiquette.”
Swinton’s book is challenging because it calls into question the legitimacy of our habit of relating to time as a resource, despite the fact that we all assume it so naturally. Time is not a resource at our disposal; it is not something we own, says the theologian, but it is a precious form of the manifestation of God’s love for man. Love needs time. According to Swinton, God invented time to be able to express His love for people and for people to have a backdrop against which they could live His love. Time is, therefore, a gift. That is why, because God gives different gifts to people, we must not constrain our understanding of time to a single measure. As vast as God’s love is for man, so are the ways in which we can live it.
“Why is it that we assume that certain ways of being in the world are a waste of time?” Swinton asks.
And what makes us believe that our failures—as ways of living our time—are something to be discarded, parasites that we must get rid of and forget that we ever had?
The vocation of failure
We forget that sometimes it is possible for God to call us precisely to “fail.” It may sound disconcerting, especially in a discussion that is so close to our daily lives. But if we had opened the discussion by referring to Biblical times, we would have no doubt that God could give us a vocation without giving us success in its pursuit.
We have become accustomed to seeing our religion as a transactional relationship, in which man gives good deeds and receives blessings in return. But consider, for example, the early Christians and the persecutions they suffered for two centuries, beginning with the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD) up until Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, by which he legalised the Christian religion (313 AD). Can we speak of Christianity “succeeding” in those centuries, when Christians died in such numbers that no-one could count the dead? Accused of cannibalism (because they shared with each other “the body and blood of Christ”), of incest (because they secretly organised agape meals—meals of brotherly love), being ex officio and viewed with suspicion by members of the majority religion because they did not offer sacrifices to the Roman gods: was this a success? Of course not. To die a martyr, the Bible says (in Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians), is not a success in itself.
But can anyone claim that those people were not called to become followers of Christ? Some may not be able to answer this question unequivocally. Let us then think of the very disciples of the Lord, whom Christ Himself chose. Can we attribute any success to them while looking at the great disappointment they must have felt when they saw the One they had come to believe was the Messiah hanging on a cross like the worst of murderers? Who would call it a success that they, the few called to stand in the presence of the incarnate God, became fearful fugitives? Christ had called each one of them (even Judas), but he did not immunise them against their own cowardice. The disciples really failed. And their failure did not retroactively cancel their call, but neither was it an “undercover blessing,” as we would like to believe about all our failures. The fact that they later became apostles is not due to the betrayal they were capable of, but to the love with which Christ received them back. Their failure was a failure and nothing else. But failure has something so incomprehensible and mysterious about it that we can hardly resist the impulse to label it “a necessary evil.”
Failure taken out from under the mat
The notion of a survivable evil seems to me to be more realistic. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert writes in a disturbing essay about the suffering that remains after the loss of a loved one, and her description invites responsibility: “Grief…will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.” Journalist Maria Popova commented on this quote and said that “out of the burning embers of the loss arises an ashen humility, true to its shared Latin root with the word humus. We are made ‘of the earth’—we bow down low, we become crust, and each breath seems to draw from the magmatic center of the planet that is our being.” But only when we accept and experience the pain, writes Popova, can we begin to live again.
If we live our failures as they are, without feeling the need to sweep them under the carpet of positivism that claims we should expect perfection, we can recognise that they are part of our lives. For a short time, they may even get confused with our identity (but never permanently). When we allow ourselves to suffer, to feel our pain, we recognise in the ability to experience negative emotions our condition as beings with intense spiritual lives. And, even if our suffering makes us seemingly vulnerable in a world that does not wait for us, it is better to be vulnerable yet honest with what we feel. It is better to be grieved, yet willing to wait for God Himself to give a broader meaning to our pain, in His time. The world, because of its hurry, is no longer waiting even after itself.
By cultural standards, inefficiently exploiting my resources, whatever they may be—my time, my character, my opportunities—can be considered a failure. But this is a view that is not only cruel, but unjust to human nature, a nature limited to the paradox of helplessly recognising its shortcomings in a thousand forms. We can spend a lifetime running from failure, ceaselessly training ourselves for performance and hoping that success will bring the fulfillment we seek. But this is too fierce of a battle—and we do not even need to win it.
Christianity offers such a contrasting vision that, in a superficial assessment, it becomes a target for ridicule. The Bible teaches that no failure and no loss can separate us (without our will) from the one thing that can truly complete us. “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Paul wrote.
The thief on the cross is an already famous example. He had one life and he lived it so miserably that society wanted his expulsion from this existence in the most degrading manner: public execution. But in the last hour of his seemingly wasted time, the thief recovers the purpose he no longer possesses physically—the time to rehabilitate. He recognises in Christ the salvation he needs and receives it. His life ends, like a kaleidoscope that was given a single twist, with a picture completely different from the one in which he had lived his years before.
God’s love does not guarantee that any failure is surmountable, but it guarantees that any failure is permeable. This love is the one thing that is able to bring a ray of the light of another world into the darkness of failure or loss.
Submerged in this love, we rewrite our priorities according to a grammar known only to God and to us. But a rule that we all share, regardless of the conjugation of our failures, is that we can live without success, but not without hope.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.