The Spiritual Discipline of Failure

Today's UPI column

So There I was…

At the department of Motor Vehicles taking the motorcycle endorsement test for the fist time. As a permitted learner, but not a licensed rider, I had arrived accompanied by an experienced rider.

Just like with cars, you can practice riding on the streets with an experienced friend. Unlike practice driving in a car, if you make a big mistake, all your friend on the other bike can do is scream and then call 911.

My friend Owen had not only taught me how the ride, he had financed my first bike. He is that sort of a friend. That day he stood on the sidelines and watched as I went through my paces on my shiny new Honda Rebel. At 250cc’s and a mere 300lbs she was just the light, nimble, bike that you wanted for the test.

They do this test off road, in a parking lot, that is painted with a test course. The tester that day was a serious looking young man with a clipboard. He inspected my bike and my gear and gave me instructions and then the go-ahead. I did great at the slalom cones. I braked from speed without skidding. I demonstrated the ability to use turn signals and horns without problem, downshifted on a corner. I passed all his tasks with ease until the last one. This was the “tight turn trick.” Painted on the pavement was a three-sided bay - precisely the size of two parking spaces. You were required to enter on the left side going at least 15 mph, you must then execute a turn inside this bay and exit on the right side without touching the white lines. There was a dot painted at the apex for reference. I had practiced a U-turn on a two-lane road, but this was considerably tighter. I gave it my best shot. Gas to 15. Entered bay. Braked. Turned at apex. Made a critical mistake. I looked down at the dot on the pavement, and then the bike was down, and I was standing over her. I looked up. Owen had his eyes covered, cringing. The clipboard boy was shaking his head and walking towards me.

I was furious and humiliated.

I don’t remember picking up my bike. The next thing I do remember was putting the bike back down on the ground. Apparently I was pumping a bit of adrenaline. Owen said that I had the front tire three feet off the ground and the back tire was lifting. I remember the front tire bouncing. I looked up again at the clipboard guy. He stopped, took one step backward and made a “settle down” gesture with his free hand – eyes wide open.

“ma’am, you ok?”
“grrr – I flunked – right?”
“You are going to have to wait three days to take the test again – but you can take it again – I am sure you will pass next time – ma’am.”

Guy to Owen: “Make sure she takes a few minutes to calm down before you guys ride home, ok?”

I did calm down, a bit. The fury wore off with the stress hormones. But I was in complete freak-out about flunking. I just could not believe it. I called a sympathetic friend.

“I flunked! I can’t believe it. I flunked!”
“Peggy, chill, it’s just like flunking a quiz at school, only with infinite do-overs.”
“Excuse ME! I have NEVER flunked a quiz.”
“Never? Never in 20 years of school?”
“Of course not!”
“ Um, Ok – it’s like getting fired from a job – you get another job.”
“Oh, give me a break – NO ONE has ever fired ME.”
“Man, …then it is like getting dumped.”
“What!? Dumped? I don’t think so!”
“You know what, Peggy? You needed this –
God decided it was your turn.”

My friend was right. I was in a failure deficit situation, and that is not good. I was 35 years old and I had never learned the Spiritual Discipline of Failure. This is not an optional discipline. And as it turned out in the next decade of my life I was going to be in a couple of big situations where success by any normal standard of success was not going to be possible, and God needed me to be fit for the task. So I started a series of practicums in the art of not getting it anything close to right.

It’s a tough class.

The core truth of this discipline is that you must learn to take your focus off of ‘outcome’ and put it onto ‘process.’ I had been hung up on flunking and not looking at how I flunked. This is a killer of a mistake. It not only can get you killed in certain situations, it kills learning and joy the rest of the time. It drastically increases fear, because there is always a dreaded outcome, and never a preventative within your control. I needed to forget about the test, and learn the crucial lesson that motorcycles will go wherever you put your eyes. In a tight turn you look out to your exit, not down at the pavement. When you learn this lesson, tight turns cease to be scary. And Friends, Life offers many opportunities for the quick U-turn.

I don’t really see God as some sort of cosmic tester with a clipboard, but I have learned to leave the outcomes up to God. When faced with an experience that looks like failure, I take a deep breath, calm down, look at what I was doing; and inevitably there was a part of the situation that I was trying to control that was really not in my power, and part of the situation that actually was in my control that I was ignoring, or didn’t recognize. Then I let go of the former and focus on the latter and sign up for do-overs.

Fortunately for me, I worship a God of infinite do-overs.

Great metaphor, Peggy. It reminds of "Keep your eye on the prize..." Just make sure you know what the prize is--and it probably has nothing to do with a dot on the blacktop.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
The way I first learned the song was, "Keep your hand on the plow, hold on . . ."

Maybe for you, Peggy, it should be, "Keep your eyes on the road, hold on!"
Very good story and finish with an overview on God.

One question on the motorcycle test though.....when you had to make this tight little turn, are your feet allowed to touch the pavement?
Wayne - good question! the answer is an unequivocal NO. The only other way to automatically flunk the test it to take your feet off your pegs for anything other than a test proscibed full stop.
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