Friday, February 16, 2018

Grateful for Failure?

With yet another "we have decided not to move forward with you, thank you for your time" result of a job interview, I find myself reflecting on the question of whether or not to be grateful for failure. All too often, there is a rush to turn the failure or setback around into something positive, into "the next one will be the right one" or "must not have been meant to be." It hurts to be told no; it hurts to fail, to have yet another setback. It took everything I had not to cry on the phone with the recruiter.  I shed many tears that night and I am grateful for the friends and my coach who offered a listening ear, comfort, and just let me be without jumping to lessons learned and what comes next.

Now that we are on the other side of the holidays and 2018 has begun, I am ready to take the next steps. I took a full break from job hunting - unsubscribed from job posting lists, did not do any networking and made the decision that I needed to thoroughly look at what I have done and what I need to do going forward. In addition, the focus on the job search which has been unrelenting for over two years, has meant things like my conversion journey were often put aside. My first priority for 2018 is to finish all the written homework I have for my conversion and then figure out what the next steps are. I am ready to be a full member of the tribe!

In my study of Judaism, particularly as I explore music, I have come across this idea of failure, set-back, roadblocks as things to be grateful for; to not worry; that all this is in one's favor, and that everything that is mine will come in time.  One of the places this comes up is in this beautiful version of Modeh Ani. Each morning I watch and listen and offer my thanks for another day. Here are the lines that I am referring to:

על כל כישלונותיי מודה אני
Al kol kishlonotai modeh ani
For all my failures I give you thanks

על אכזבותיי פחדיי ומכשוליי
Al aczavutai pachadai umkshulai
For every letdown, fear, and setback

הם כולם לטובתי
Hem kulam ltovati
They are all in my favor

The second song is the parody of "Despacito" by the Maccabeats.


קח את החיים שלך בדספסיטו
Kach et hachayim shelcha bedespacito
Take your life slowly

כל דבר בזמן שלו יבוא קרידו
Kol davar bazman shelo yavo querido
Everything that's yours in it's time will come, dear

וכל עכבה זה טוב רק תאמין בו
Vechol ekaba ze tov rak ta’amin bo
And any obstruction is good only believe it,

My rabbi sent me to look up Taanit 21a and the story of Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam-Zu, whose name means "all for the best." He was called that as it was what he said all the time. He insisted that no matter what the calamity that happened to him "it was all for the best." As I delved further and read more commentaries, it is clear that this notion that "all is for the good" is grounded in the assertion that everything that happens, comes from God and since God cannot do bad things, then everything, no matter how awful, must be "all for the best." This is grounded in the assertion that God is omnipotent, all powerful, an idea I have long rejected. I wonder if Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam-Zu would be able to assert that even the Holocaust "was for the best." It was the Holocaust, other genocides, and the way people so often treat each other as objects to be used and discarded that led to my rejection of the omnipotence of God. Now this is a classical theological question called theodicy and I am not the first to reject the omnipotence of God or that God has some master plan that is beyond our understanding so just trust that it will all work out.

So what about being grateful for failure? If God is not all powerful, then suffering does not come from God. Harold Kushner's answer that creation is on-going and incomplete provides part of this answer. The assertion that we are commanded to tikkun olam - repairing the world, means it is our task to do our part in alleviating suffering. Does this mean I don't believe there is a plan or some greater purpose? No, there is a plan and yes it is beyond any single person's understanding and it is ever evolving. If creation is not a "one and done" event but never ceasing, then the plan is ever evolving as well. We each have a part and role in the plan - we each have a purpose, our part in healing this world. If that is the case, then we are going to get it wrong sometimes. We are going to mistakes, there will be setbacks, there will be suffering.

Viktor Frankl asserted, quoting Nietzsche, that "a person could survive almost any how, if the person knew why." Frankl asserted that their must be meaning in suffering. This, however, was not a static meaning. Meaning evolved as our life changes and evolves. He had one purpose in the camps - to accept the suffering he and the other prisoners were experiencing without turning away or escaping into fantasy and later his meaning or his purpose was to help others find the meaning in their lives. Frankl did not sugar-coat suffering or even say it was good. In fact Frankl said "But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering—provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic." (Man's Search for Meaning, @69% in Kindle edition) So those in the concentration camps must not asked to see the suffering as good or even justified and whatever meaning people found there could never justify the evil of the camps. The suffering of the concentration camps could have been avoided and should have never happened. Much of human suffering - poverty, hunger, violence, war - these are of our own making and just as we have made it - we can end it. In fact, if we are to take tikkun olam seriously, then we are commanded to end it.

So be grateful for failure, for set-back? Yes, there is reason to give thanks even for the failures, the setbacks, the obstacles, at least in cases like not being offered a job. It hurts, absolutely, and yet in stepping back, taking a larger view, I can choose to see it as part of this process. Job searching is not for the faint of heart because one will often hear "no" far more often than "yes."  Maybe it was for the best and is too soon to know. Yet in the morning, I can give thanks for failure because it is a part of life. It is how we learn. One of the greatest gifts Judaism has given me, is permission to fail, the expectation that we will fail and have setbacks. If we accept that, then we can keep going.