A Life’s Worth of Failure, an Abundance of Gratitude

By Karl Keating, New Oxford Review

“…I have a favorite line from Pope Leo XIII. It’s from Rerum Novarum (1891), the first of the social encyclicals. Nearly every pope since his time has written one or more social encyclicals. The line I remember isn’t quite as Leo wrote it. Often we remember lines a little differently from the way they actually were written or spoken. This is the way the line has settled in my mind: “There is nothing so salutary as to view the world as it really is.” I have drawn my own corollary: “There is nothing so salutary as to view ourselves as we really are.”

It isn’t easy to view ourselves as we really are, but it becomes easier with age. Looking back from my present vantage point — I have passed the biblical three score and ten — I can appreciate and weigh things in my life in a way I couldn’t ten or even five years ago. I can view my life at something like arm’s length, with a clarity I didn’t enjoy before. The view isn’t particularly inspiring.

I can hardly think of a department of life in which I have succeeded more often than I have failed: as a son, brother, husband, or father; as a friend, neighbor, or mere acquaintance; as an employer, employee, or coworker; as a writer, editor, or publisher; as a speaker or a listener; as a believer or a pray-er. Take the last one as an example.

If there is a poetic phrase that applies to me, it’s from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.” It’s only five words: “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” I pray the Rosary every morning, but I wonder whether I ever have been able to pray it through without getting distracted. I suspect not. If I ever had prayed it through without distraction, I’d have been so startled that the event would have been etched in my memory indelibly.

It may be no surprise, then, that my reigning defect is procrastination. It is the only art I have perfected. I am perpetually busy, yet my to-do list reads almost the same today as it did last month — or last year. Because of procrastination, I have let many opportunities slip. Sometimes I recall the line Marlon Brando uttered in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender.” So many times I could have done something useful, but I put it off and put it off until it was too late.

Seeking success (and so often failing to achieve it) is largely a “guy thing.” Men tend to strive for success; most women don’t. In most matters, women take the smarter route. They usually don’t think in terms of success. In most matters, men do. It’s in our nature. We exist, most of us, in competition, whether in athletics, at work, or in the innocent pleasures of daily life. We’re in competition with others — and even with ourselves.

Seeking success, we often fail, and the failures sting. We tend to put them out of our minds. The result is that the lesser number of successes seems to outweigh the greater number of failures. This is a form of unreality, and, in the long run, unreality isn’t satisfying.

We should try to understand our failures: why they occurred and how we can prevent ourselves from replicating them. If they are moral failures, we need to resolve them in the confessional. If they are failures of wisdom or knowledge, we need to study and reflect. If they are failures of ability, skill, or advancing age, we need to ameliorate them as we can. And if they are failures beyond our control, such as those caused by natural forces or by other people’s actions, we need to learn to assess them properly.

We ought to be, oddly enough, grateful for our failures. It’s easy to be grateful for successes, so it may seem counterintuitive to be grateful for failures. Who wants to fail? Who wants to rejoice in failure? Given our fallen nature, you might think failure not only should be shunned but put out of our minds entirely, as having nothing useful in it. But we can profit from failure, even while trying to avoid it.

In life we learn two ways: from positive instruction and from observing the mistakes of others — and our own… Read it all

Karl Keating, a Contributing Editor of the New Oxford Review, has engaged in Catholic apologetics for more than four decades and is the author of 20 books. His most recent is Sun, Storm, and Solitude: Discovering Hidden Italy on the Cammino di San Benedetto. He is completing the last of a series of four books on hiking and backpacking. The series title is How to Fail at Hiking. This article is based on a talk he gave at the Diocese of Scranton’s sixth annual Catholic Men’s Conference on October 30, 2021.

Karl Keating: The Francis Feud