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Jewish World Review June 2, 1999 /18 Sivan, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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In praise of failure

(JWR) ---- (
Subiaco, Ark. --- 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 on your right, beckoning the eye and soul. And you're here. Subiaco Academy.

This is a beautiful, serene place, and I'm not talking about just the scenery. A visitor who's here to give still another forgettable commencement address can only suspect the amount of complicated hurly-burly it takes to keep this hilltop beautiful and serene. For all its peace, a monastery must have as many personalities as a kibbutz. Then throw a thousand or so teen-age boys into the mix, and you doubtless need all the beauty and serenity you can summon. Subiaco has a lot of both.

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. Which ought to tell me something about my function here. Essentially, it's to take up the last 20 minutes standing between these graduates' four years here and ... (ital)Freedom(unital)¡ Driving up the hill, I can almost see them tossing their mortarboards in the air now.

So why am I doing this? Because it's Tradition. I can buy that.

But there's another reason: Nobody else may be much helped or harmed by a commencement speech, but it's a great opportunity for the speaker. For how many of us ever have the opportunity to pass on a little advice to our old, or rather much younger, selves? It costs so little. Ambrose Bierce, in his "Devil's Dictionary,'' defined advice as the smallest current coin in circulation.

These graduates clearly needed no advice about success. They had just achieved it and would soon have the diplomas to certify it. No, I decided, if I were just talking to myself up there at the podium, and I probably would be, then I'd talk about my own field of expertise: failure.

Success is much over-rated in our go-getter society. For when it comes to teaching us, Success can't hold a candle to Failure. Who ever learned much from his successes? Who has not learned from failure?

So 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.

I told the graduates something that hadn't been included in the bio I'd forwarded to the headmaster for his introduction of the commencement speaker. I told them 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 there would no longer be necessary.

I was crushed. You might have to be a graduate student, and one of those who can imagine none other but the scholarly life, to understand how crushed. I'd had no idea what awaited me at Columbia, having gotten my master's at the University of Missouri. Its graduate department of history had been small, distinguished, personal. It had been one of the most enjoyable years of my life. Every student was prized and cultivated, and their eccentricities not only tolerated but indulged.

For example: I took two unforgettable reading courses, the kind in which you read a list of books and discuss them periodically with the professor -- one on one. The first was with a great admirer and student of Jefferson, who heard me out as I repeated the contrary Adams-Hamilton line, for I'd long since adopted the Federalist cause.

The other scholar was an ardent Francophile with whom I discussed the history of the short-lived Weimar Republic in Germany. He listened with an interested expression as I explained why the Germans were innocent -- well, not wholly guilty -- of starting the First World War, and detailed their mistreatment afterward.

I converted neither of my teachers, needless to say, but both gave me the highest marks.

I had no idea what awaited me at Columbia University, where I kept running head-on into the ideological icons of the day, and it wasn't they who were bashed. I'm not sure which was my worst mistake -- finding a factual error in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s venerated history of the New Deal or finding the testimony of ex-Communists like Whittaker Chambers credible. (It was the rule at Columbia that ex-Communists were not to be believed. This stricture did not, however, apply to current ones.)

I can remember one professor at my orals sleeping through my responses, or at least closing his eyes. I still regret not getting up and tiptoeing out so as not to disturb him.

But I spared the distinguished graduates of Subiaco all that. Instead, I said I'd had no idea of the simple truths that failure would teach me. Among them, that America is a big country. That it is still the land of opportunity. And 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. One of the rules of the Benedictine order, I learned at Subiaco, was to convert continually. To change wholly always. To constantly turn completely toward His love. Not only the monks have that opportunity; He offers it to us all.

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.

Failure and success aren't just categories of academic life, or business, or sports. There are all kinds of failures and successes. I remember reading a billboard that the Mormon Church put up years ago, and its message stayed with me. All it said was: "No success outside the home can compensate for failure in the home.`

I told the graduates to be true to those who love them, to cherish their families and the families they will, Lord willing, someday have. I told them to love life, and not forget to enjoy it. For that would be a sin, the sin of ingratitude. We Jews are told that the first question we'll be asked in the world to come is, "Which of the earthly delights the L-rd Our G-d provided did you not taste, and why not?''

And I passed on Goethe's good advice: "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and, if possible, to speak a few reasonable words.''

I told the graduates that all of the beauty, all of the serenity atop the hill at Subiaco was still fresh to my eyes, however familiar it might be to them. I told them I hoped they would always be able to see it, and the world, with fresh eyes.

And finally I wished them many successful failures.

That's how I concluded my conversation with my younger self; anybody else was welcome to eavesdrop.


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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate