Jewish World Review June 1, 2006 / 5 Sivan, 5766
In praise of failure
SUBIACO, Ark. Graduation season can be lovely. You drive through the green, rolling fields of western Arkansas, winding your way around the foothills of the Ozarks along State Highway 22, and then, without warning, a European monastery rises high on your right, beckoning the eye and soul. You've made the pilgrimage to Subiaco Academy.
This is a beautiful, serene place, and I'm not talking about just the scenery. A visitor who's come to give still another forgettable commencement address can only suspect the amount of complicated hurly-burly it takes to keep this hilltop feeling serene.
For all its peace, a monastery must have as many personalities as a kibbutz. Throw a thousand or so teenage boys into the mix, and you doubtless need all the beauty and serenity you can summon.
What can I possibly add to all this? Lulled by the drive along lakes and hills, I try to think of how many commencement addresses I've heard in my checkered academic and parental career. Not only can't I remember how many, I can't recall a word any of the speakers said.
Nobody else may be much helped or harmed by a commencement speech, but it's a great opportunity for the speaker. How many of us ever have the opportunity to conjure up our old, or rather our much younger, self and pass on some advice to him? It costs so little. (Ambrose Bierce, in his "Devil's Dictionary," defined advice as the smallest coin currently in circulation.)
These graduates clearly needed no advice about success. They had just achieved theirs, and would soon have the diplomas to certify it.
No, I decided that, if I were just talking to myself up there on the podium, and I probably would be, then I'd talk about my own field of expertise: failure.
Success is much overrated in our go-getter society. For when it comes to teaching us something, success can't hold a candle to failure. Who ever learned much from his successes? Who has not learned from failure?
I told the graduates they were looking at a lucky man. Because it's a wonderful thing to experience failure early in life. And to have it over with. After a great failure, you're a free man. Nobody expects anything much of you anymore. Your calendar is cleared for the rest of your life. Anything you might actually accomplish after that is optional, lagniappe, a bonus.
I told the graduates that I'd not only failed my oral examinations for the degree of doctor of philosophy in history at Columbia University, but I'd failed them twice . Whereupon I was told that my presence at Columbia would no longer be necessary.
I was crushed. You may have to be a graduate student, and one of those who can imagine none other but the scholarly life, to understand just how crushed. I'd had no idea what awaited me at Columbia, having got my master's at the University of Missouri. Its graduate department of history had been small, remarkably accomplished, personal, even paternal. It was just about the most enjoyable year of my life.
But at Columbia, I kept running head-on into the ideological icons of the day and it wasn't they who got bashed.
I told these shiny new graduates about some things failure could teach. Among them, that America is a big country. That it is still the land of opportunity. That there are more important things in life, lots of them, than a Ph.D. And that we get not only second and third and fourth but daily chances to start all over again.
St. Benedict knew all about that. This is a Benedictine monastery, and its founder knew what he was doing when he laid down the rules for his order. One of those rules, I learned at Subiaco, was to convert continually. To be changing wholly always.
I told the graduates that failure can be just an opportunity for grace to know it, and to show it. To fail can be a great thing, a humbling and illuminating experience, an education all its own. Failure will show you who your friends are and, more important, who you are. Failure restores perspective. It obliterates earlier obsessions. And after the initial shock, it eases the mind. One walks more lightly.
There was a time when I couldn't bear to mention my experience at Columbia, and now I can hardly wait to introduce it into the conversation. I'm not sure which attitude is more shameful.
I don't mean to brag, but I've had many failures since. Still, I particularly like to mention my experience at Columbia to young people, especially if they've just failed some test they set great store by. I wished them all many successful failures.
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