Economic capitalism has a psychological twin. We would not by as stricken by its presence as we are with economic capitalism, but if we look into the subtle details of our interior universe we see it’s there.
Emotional capitalism. The one 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 / organizational benefits has been proven empirically. It was only intuitive that these beautiful character traits would produce equally beautiful results.
But this model of psychological capital is inevitably flawed. And 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.
But life does not consider the psychological models that are fashionable and stubbornly show us that, in addition to the trampoline failure, the one that propels us to even more advanced peaks of development, after a small unpleasant detour, there is still failure-failure, that is, the one that can never be transformed into success, the irrecoverable one. And it 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, made a critique of the way in which our society came to a distorted way of interacting with less-abled peple 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 sound 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 a vicious circle we all entered, time has become our master, and we have become hamsters always busy running on the wheel to nowhere.
Even in our conversations, although we don’t even realize 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 realize that there are people who experience time as a different dimension than we understand it, and this does not make them any second 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 custom 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 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 toward 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 certain ways of being in the world are a waste of time?” Swinton rhetorically 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 reffering to Biblical times, we would have had 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) and until Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, by which he legalized the Christian religion (313 AD). Can we speak of Christianity succeeding in those centuries, when Christians died without anyone ever being able to count their dead? Accused of cannibalism (because they shared with “the body and blood of Christ”), of incest (because they secretly organized agape – meals of brotherly love), being ex officio viewed with suspicion by members of the majority religion because they did not offer sacrifices to the Roman gods? 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 as the worst of murderers? Who would call a success the fact 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 immunize 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 temptation to label it quickly as “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 spoke 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 recognize that they are part of our lives. For a short time, they may even get confused with our identity. (Never permanently.) When we allow ourselves to suffer, to feel our pain, we recognize 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 is not waiting for us, it is better to be vulnerable, but honest with what we feel. It is better to be grieved, but willing to wait for God Himself to give a broader meaning to our pain, in His time. The world, given 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 also unjust to human nature, the one limited to the paradox of recognizing, helplessly, its own shortcomings in thousands of forms. We can spend a lifetime running from failure, ceaselessly training ourselves for performance and hoping that success will bring with it the fulfillment we all seek. But this is too fierce of a battle and we do not even need to win it.
Christianity comes with such an atypical 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 accomplish 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 the society wanted his expulsion from this existence in the most degrading procession: by public execution. But in the last hour of his seemingly wasted time, the robber recovers the purpose he no longer has, physically, the time to rehabilitate. He recognizes in Christ the salvation he needs and receives it, and his life ends, like a kaleidoscope that moved a single time, with a picture completely different from the one in which he had lived his years before.
God’s love is not the 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 declination of our failures, is that one can live without success, but not without hope.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.