Fear & failure

This month in my spiritual direction training program we told our sacred stories. These stories included the events, people, and experiences that form us and our spirituality. The program leaders gave us a few prompts, but the real instruction was this: “Life unfolds, one petal at a time, slowly. What is unfolding?

Pale Pink Peony Closeup
“Pale Pink Peony Closeup” by ksblack99 CC PDM 1.0

I began to pay attention to themes that unfolded in my daily life, and I thought back to my March blog post about listening. So I listened to what unfolded, and I was surprised by what I heard: fear and failure.

Paying attention to fear

In April, my friend and colleague, Rachel Bloom-Pojar, invited me to speak to her research methods graduate class. I spoke about and offered some reflections on fear and uncertainty in the writing research process. It felt good to have real, practical conversations about our discomfort. It felt honest and new. We don’t often talk about fear and failure in our graduate classes because, well, it’s uncomfortable.

Then, a few weeks later, fear popped back up during another workshop. I co-created and co-hosted a job search workshop for English majors with our career services center. We invited all majors to it, understanding that most students would benefit from thinking about life after college. But no one showed up. Not one student. And we tried to figure out why.

Sure, it was close to the end of the semester, and it was the first nice day of the spring season (which is a big deal in Milwaukee—the polar vortex was a thing that happened here six months ago). We thought students had other things to do.

But then we dug deeper. We realized that low or no attendance at these events is a pattern. My colleague wondered about the students’ “if-I-don’t-see-it-it-can’t-be-real” mentality: “If I don’t think about life after graduation, then it won’t happen.” Life after graduation at any level, 8th grade, high school, college, grad school, is scary. And then we mentioned the four-letter f-word: fear. Fear might have driven students to not attend a workshop.

Then, in May, I listened to a podcast that a dear friend and School Sister of St. Francis shared with me. The podcast hosts discussed how life isn’t a straight line, even though when we’re young, we think (and maybe hope) that life develops linearly. And it doesn’t. That makes life’s journey rich, although challenging, and to learn from the twists and turns, we have to identify and befriend our fears.

Fear, meet your old friend, Failure

We might not be ready to face our fears because we don’t talk about how to do it. We’re not trained how to do it. Perhaps our mentors are just as uncomfortable with fear and failure as we are.

For example, as academics, we see summer and all of the possibility that lies ahead. But as we know, we never finish everything on our to-do lists over summer. Lisa Meloncon offers advice on how to cope with that. One of the best pieces of advice she offers is to take your to-do list and cut it down by half. That’s a realistic approach to summer work because everything takes longer than you anticipate, life happens, etc. But cutting that list is a scary thing to do.

And doing that might feel like failure.

Failure and fear often go hand-in-hand. We’re afraid of failing, so we don’t take a risk or we don’t face our fear. We’re afraid of failing, so we keep our to-do lists loaded and overflowing, which is a great way to set ourselves up for failure.

Like the imposter, fear and failure are invitations. They want to be known and understood so we can get to the root of it.

Getting to the root

One of my favorite ways to better understand things that make me uncomfortable came from my spiritual director. At the end of each meeting, he offers a few suggestions for how I can connect more fully with the energy and events that are unfolding in my life. He’ll often suggest that I spend time thinking about what is at the root of things: What grounds your anger? What drives your grief? What is underneath your fear?

Autumn tree
“Autumn Tree” by RR_KRK CC PDM 1.0

Many things drive fear. It protects us from knowing ourselves and showing our true, vulnerable self to others. It tries to keep us safe. We stay in it to avoid being uncomfortable. We don’t want to make mistakes.   

One of my cousins reminds me, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Google attributes that quote to a few different people. But regardless of who said it, there is wisdom there.

Fear and failure are growing edges.

Fear are failure are invitations.

Fear and failure aren’t something to overcome. They are experiences to be understood so that we might learn from their wisdom.

Questions to ponder

  • How do you define fear?
  • How do you define failure?
  • How have people in your life modeled ways to cope with fear and failure?
  • Where do you experience fear or failure in your body?
  • What do you do when you experience fear or failure?
  • What is at the root of fear for you? Of failure?
  • What might fear or failure be inviting you to learn, to do, or to experience?

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