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Thought for the Day - John Bell

John Bell

So we all know the outcome of the Men’s Singles yesterday. We know who enjoys the acclamation of victory and who has nobly accepted defeat.

Most of us have been geared to crave success for ourselves and others. Indeed for some it’s a drug. And because we celebritise those who have been successful, what we fear most for ourselves and those we love is failure.

I became acutely aware of this recently when I was the conference preacher at a gathering of 1200 young adults in North Carolina.

On the second evening, I addressed the issue of failure. I acknowledged that for me three big failures - in education, romance and health had immeasurably deepened my life in ways that any successes never had.

And I wanted to indicate that God through the Bible and through the ages exhibits a fond affection for people who are neither slaves of success nor squeaky-clean paragons of virtue. It seems to me that under the providence of heaven, the experience of failure is something which need not lead us to the terminus of our aspirations, but can provide an invaluable sense of proportion.

I subsequently received an unexpected batch of handwritten messages and emails from people to whom no-one had ever said, ‘Don’t be afraid of failure’. One 18 year-old, typical of many others, wrote that he had long been aware that he was the victim of his father’s almost pathological need for his children to succeed.

But what touched me more was a conversation with a middle-aged gynaecologist. He spoke of how for 28 years he had been haunted by the memory of what happened in the last term of his hospital training, under a regime which regarded long spells on duty without sleep as a physician’s rite of passage.

He was called one night to the bed of a woman who was dying of cervical cancer. He knew she had only minutes to live. He slumped down on the chair beside her, and though he had been trained for this moment, he fell fast asleep and woke up to find her dead. ‘I knew I should have held her hand’, he said. ‘I failed. I failed that woman.’

And then he said, ‘I can’t undo that. But it was a moment which changed my life. Because I vowed that never again would I neglect a patient in need, and I vowed that no junior doctors working under me would ever get so tired that they couldn’t offer sensitive care’.

At the core of all true religion is the belief that being faithful and loving is more important than succeeding. Failure is not something which should mark us forever as defective, inadequate or bad. Rather, it can be the fertile soil in which the flower of hope takes root much more easily than in the sometimes arid desert of overblown success.

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