Recently I was talking with some colleagues about a student who was feeling all the "normal" pressure of being a teenager in today's world. The student, like so many others, was maxed out on activities, unsure of what she wanted to do in life, feeling rather worthless compared to her peers, and tired of being told that she was something (great, beautiful, smart, creative, etc.) that she knew she wasn't. Mostly this student was simply afraid of failing. At some point the student had let it be known that her father's great mantra in their house was, "Failure is not an option." It's a line from Apollo 13.
I think many of our students operate as though this statement is true even though it is totally destructive. Many of the students that I work with seem to have the idea that one failure or series of failures will end their life before it has even begun. They often crumple or react at the first direct form of criticism they receive. Many struggle with the "identity tells" they have been given throughout life. They are told they are smart, or athletic, or mathematically gifted. Sadly, what this ends up being is merely a facade that is foisted upon them by the adult world. And intuitively they know this. It's something akin to a studio house at Universal Studios. The student knows that the house is just a thin and untested front. The facade simply represents an ideal identity that the parents want to believe. As a result the students are terrified of making a mistake that will reveal the facade for what it is. If they don't ever risk or fail, the facade will at least continue to appear to be beautiful from the outside. It feels like failure isn't an option.
I have heard the line from Apollo 13 a million times over the years. I have even said, "Failure is not an option!" hundreds of times in my head or out loud. Sometimes it has been said humorously and sometimes it has been used as a serious motivational tool. But, what struck me the other day was the irony of a father using that statement as a motivator for his child. Because the reality is that the entire Apollo program was built on the exact opposite reality. Failure was always an option and it must be for any learning and success in life. Listen to this interview with the first African American administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden.
Here is my favorite quote from Bolden during the interview:
"I go around and try to tell people all the time, especially young kids, just don't ever give up on a dream that you have. If you are willing to study and work really hard, and you don't mind falling down and getting back up, if you're not afraid of failure, things are going to work. That's the way that NASA works. I mean, we had three devastating accidents. And we just observed those within the last few weeks - Apollo 1, you know, STS-51-L and STS-107, Challenger in Columbia. And a lesser organization would have just folded, would have said, OK, let's quit. And we didn't do that. You know, I was there when we lost Challenger, and I asked myself if this was really what I wanted to do. I had just come back from my first flight in space 10 days before we lost Challenger. It took me about a nanosecond to decide that I was in the right business. This was what I wanted to do."
The very heartbeat of the Apollo program was failure. When one thinks of all the models and test flights it is staggering to think how many failures happened along the way. My belief is that what youth ministry in the United States (and any program that works with teens) needs is built in opportunities to fail. We need to create real learning spaces where students can make mistakes. Much of what we do in youth ministry is so safe and contained, it is no wonder that they lose interest in so much of what we do! It feels artificial.
If anybody should understand a willingness to fail it ought to be the church. The church itself was one of the riskiest startups in all of history! Through a whole variety of lenses Jesus' ministry was a colossal failure. It lasted only three years! There were disciples who didn't understand. Their were empires who found Jesus foolish. Their were rich young rulers who walked away from Jesus' truth. They couldn't be sold on his idea for a start up Kingdom. But, the church has always known that our strength is made perfect in weakness. The Christian story has always taught us that it is often at the point of failure that we discover our greatest strengths and callings. It's not that we want to fail. The church's goal is never self loathing or penitent flagellation for its own sake. We are not masochists. But, we need to see that failure is the soil of all learning. It's the launch pad of any great idea!
So, my hope would be that the father of that student might discover a new mantra. That failure IS an option. In fact it is an essential ingredient to all of life. I would hope that the church can start to design youth ministries that allow enough meaningful participation that students can attempt things that fail from time to time. Let students dream up their own mission trips, execute on some of their own ideas, lead their own youth nights, and lead younger students and children! I think if we tried those kind of risk-fail environments on for size we would find students leaving our ministry who are much healthier and whole. We would also find (I think) students who can better understand the arc of the Jesus story which is littered with failures. May God bless you with new ideas to try and the learning that comes from failing!