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On Failing and Finishing

The stories I have chosen to tell are not easy for me to share. These are not my proudest moments, and I usually prefer to wear my confident, professional persona for public consumption.

However, I have come to appreciate the value of weakness and the strength that comes from acknowledging it. I hope that by sharing a couple of my failures, you can find some appreciation for your own.

Show up and try

Three years ago a few faculty in our department decided to take a ski-instructor class together. The idea was that we could spend Friday afternoons learning how to teach something completely outside of our expertise while also enjoying some recreation together.

When we met for the first time, we played a couple of simple games together, and I remember feeling somewhat confident about my place in the group. All was going relatively well for me—until we rode the lift to the top of the resort.

I made my way without much trouble, but when I looked to see my classmates skiing to the rendezvous point, I froze. If I were to follow my peers, I would have to ski at what appeared to be an impossible angle. I had never skied on something quite like that before and immediately started looking around for other options.

I determined that rather than ski directly down the mountain, I would simply ski the mountain horizontally, back and forth, allowing me to take a less severe descent to the desired location. I took a deep breath and skied to the right and then forced as sharp a turn as I could manage to head back to my class. Unfortunately, my calculations were off, and I could see that I would be well below the rest of the class upon completing my epic return across the face of the mountain. Flustered from this realization, I fell.

Mark, one of the course instructors, hurried over to try to give me a couple of pointers. After what must have been a few frustrating moments for him, he hollered up to the group that the others should go ahead. The class had been divided into three groups: the advanced skiers, the intermediate skiers, and me. I was humiliated.

Mark stayed with me and did his best to coach me down the mountain, and given that I had no other options, I did my very best to listen to his counsel. Much of that day is a blur to me. I was constantly switching focus between Mark’s patient instruction and my own thoughts about the futility of the whole endeavor.

I left that Friday unsure if I would ever return. I even worried about what would happen when I had to face my colleagues Monday morning. I fully expected some good-natured teasing, but instead everyone simply talked about how much fun it was to do something different together.

No one focused on my inability; rather, they talked about their own improvements and their desire to keep learning. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and I privately resolved that I would finish the class.

I didn’t become an incredible skier overnight—or ever. I did join the intermediate group for a few runs toward the end of the course, but I was always the last one down the mountain. Still, even I could see that I had improved.

This experience gave me a deep appreciation for the value of the “try.” Simply showing up and starting where you are is all that can be asked of you. Regardless of your level of experience, your failures, or your perception of your own potential, wherever you are in life, you just need to show up and try.

Try to listen to the patient instruction of the Savior, try to imitate His movements, try to ignore the negative self-talk when your movements do not measure up, and try to focus on the joy in the learning instead of the defeat in the failure. And amidst your “try,” recognize that others around you are in the middle of their own “tries.”

In my own classroom I have seen that failure is one of the best ways to generate lasting, intellectual learning. The authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning report:

Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating fertile ground for its encoding, in a way that simply reading [or being given] the answer cannot.1

It is very satisfying as a teacher to witness the transition from failed attempt to recognition and understanding.

Failure is useful in physical development as well. Strategically working a muscle to failure—the point at which you can no longer lift or push or pull whatever you are lifting, pushing, or pulling—and then allowing proper time for the muscle fibers to repair is one of the most effective ways to build strength. This process of failing and repairing eventually results in stronger, more efficient muscles.

If failure is important to our intellectual and physical improvement, perhaps it is important in our quest for perfection as well. Could it be that our moments of extremity are necessary for our spiritual progress and that our Savior knows that only then are we ready to learn? Regrettably, accepting help when we need it most can be difficult.

Accept help

In March 2008 two of my former students, Mike and Taylor, invited my family to go spelunking in Spanish Moss Cave. We were all excited, though we were not experienced rock climbers. After a little training at an indoor gym, we hiked five miles into Rock Canyon and up to the cave entrance.

The initial descent into a corkscrew-shaped crack in the rocks twists downward for fifteen to twenty feet before it finally opens into the domed roof of the cave. Once through the crack, we each rappelled approximately fifty feet down to a sloped floor that continued into the belly of the cave.

We spent a couple of hours exploring, marveling at the oddly shaped formations along the way. At the bottom of the cave, just before we turned around, Taylor took a picture of my family. I remember feeling charged with the exhilaration of a great adventure with my family. I felt triumphant, like I had accomplished something different, something unique and special. But I would not carry that same feeling with me out of the cave.

We clambered back up to the domed room, but the real challenge remained: we still had to navigate the rope that hung from the ceiling and disappeared into the winding rock exit above. And this time we would be climbing up (with the assistance of ascenders) instead of dropping effortlessly down.

Mike ascended first and positioned himself in the corkscrew to coach me through the process, while Taylor stabilized the bottom of the rope. I had only learned to use the ascenders that morning, and although it had seemed simple in the climbing gym, I struggled to get my arms and legs to work together now.

I managed to inch about halfway up the rope before I had to stop, slumping down in the climbing harness to rest my legs. But fear would not let me rest my arms. I clung tightly to the ascenders, refusing to let go and unable to relax. I spent several minutes dangling twenty-five feet above the ground, mustering the strength to keep climbing.

I gathered myself and continued up the remaining visible length of rope until the top ascender would move no further. I had reached the rock above and needed to let go of the ascenders. This was the only way I could find handholds and continue climbing.

Again, fear took hold of me. Every muscle in my body shook, and I began to contemplate what living in a cave might be like. In this panic-stricken state, I heard Mike talking above me. He was telling me to relax and to stay calm, giving me instructions on where to reach.

Unable to see any suitable holds, I told Mike, “I cannot do this.”

I looked up hoping to see him, but because of the curvature of the rock, I could only hear his voice. He tried different instructions, but there was no way I was letting go of those ascenders. I didn’t trust the rock, I didn’t trust myself, and I didn’t trust my ability to leave the perceived safety of the gear to which I clung. I remember hearing some movement above me, and then Mike told me to take his hand.

This time when I looked up, I could see Mike’s forearm, with his hand open wide. I laughed out loud.

“You are just going to pull me up one-handed?” I asked.

“Sure!” he said confidently.

We argued the relative merits of this idea for a time. Given that I am not telling you this story from inside Spanish Moss Cave, you can guess who won that argument.

Looking up again, I was seized with the realization that I really didn’t want to stay in the cave forever. I wanted to go home. This awareness gave me the courage to trust Mike and to reach for his hand. One moment I was dangling from the dome, and the next moment I was wedged into the crevice, still clinging to one ascender with my other hand. I could finally relax my arms.

Mike’s steady and confident voice guided me farther up the twisting exit until we encountered one last challenge: I was too short to reach the next hold and too timid to make a swing for it. Mike suggested that he try to pass me in the crevice, get beneath me, and then boost me up to the hold. I was not sure the maneuver would work, but by this point I was humbled enough to listen to his advice. Mike managed to find a way around me and secured himself against the wall just below me.

When he told me to use his back as a step stool to reach the next hold, I had visions of me standing on his back, his hands slipping under my weight, and his body falling through the hole in the cave ceiling. We again argued over the merits of his crazy idea, but I finally gave in and stepped on Mike, who held firm so I could reach the hold I needed. From there it was a relatively easy climb to the open air.

Looking out over the valley, I couldn’t suppress a nagging feeling of defeat that contrasted starkly with my proud moment at the bottom of the cave. I replayed everything that had just happened. Did Mike really pull me up from the top of a fifty-foot drop? Did I really step on him? Was I really that needy? Yes, yes, and yes.

We are all that needy. Perhaps you would have fared better than I did in Spanish Moss Cave, but we all, at one time or other, will be in a situation in which our strength or knowledge or skill or perhaps even our desire is not enough. These are the times when your Savior pulls you up out of the darkness—if you will let go and take His hand. These are the times when His voice guides you to safety—if you will listen carefully. And it is for these times that He descended below all things—to become your stepping-stone.

I love these words from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

When [the Savior] says . . . “Come unto me,” He means He knows the way out and He knows the way up. He knows it because He has walked it. He knows the way because He is the way.2

I recently asked Mike whether he was ever concerned about getting me out of the cave that day.

Without hesitation, he replied, “No, there was always a plan. I carried all kinds of gear you never saw. There is always a way. Sometimes it is 5 percent me and 95 percent the other person; sometimes it is 99 percent me and 1 percent the other person. But I know I can work with whatever the person has to give.”

Our Savior is the same. He can work with whatever you have to give if you are willing to accept His help.

Becoming finished

Brian K. Ashton of the Sunday School general presidency reminded us that “repentance is not a backup plan just in case our plan to live perfectly fails.”

He also said, “[Repentance] is not just for big sins but is a daily process of self-evaluation and improvement that helps us to overcome our sins, our imperfections, our weaknesses, and our inadequacies.”3

Living perfectly is not the plan. Repentance is the plan. Jesus Christ is the plan. I think we erroneously equate perfection with living a perfect life, with never failing or falling short, but Jesus Christ is the only one who ever did or ever will do that. Perfection for us, then, must be about something else.

John S. Robertson explained in a BYU devotional that our understanding of the word perfect has changed during the last four hundred years: whereas we use perfect to mean “flawless” today, its Latinate root meant something closer to “finished.” Furthermore, the Hebrew word that was translated as “perfect” in the Bible might have been more accurately translated as “complete.”4 Perfection is not about being flawless; it is about being finished.

Artists who practice the Japanese art form kintsugi repair broken pottery by filling the cracks with a lacquer made from gold, silver, or platinum, restoring the damaged piece to something beautiful and whole. Kintsugi teaches that scars are not something to hide; rather, they are to be celebrated for the unique beauty they exhibit. The scars themselves are considered precious and therefore are mended with precious metals to honor their value. The finished piece is even more beautiful than the unbroken original.

Similarly, we honor the scars of our Savior, for He has graven us on the palms of His hands (see Isaiah 49:16). He is not ashamed of His scars. On the contrary, He has given us this invitation:

Arise and come forth . . . that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am . . . the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. (3 Nephi 11:14)

When we turn our broken pieces over to the Savior, our gaps are filled with Him—with His perfection—and we are made complete; we are finished by the Great Creator through the restorative power of “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). We come to know the Savior not just by recognizing and reverencing His scars but by recognizing and reverencing our own. We are bound to the Savior through our mutual scars, “and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

I echo the words of Elder Holland:

[When] you are lonely, please know you can find comfort. [When] you are discouraged, please know you can find hope. [When] you are poor in spirit, please know you can be strengthened. [When] you feel you are broken, please know you can be mended.5

Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, desires to mend your broken pieces, fill your empty spaces, and make of you a vessel that is more beautiful and whole.

May you each find the strength to fail and, in the hands of your Savior, the power to finish.

Notes

  1. Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 88.
  2. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Broken Things to Mend,” Ensign, May 2006.
  3. Brian K. Ashton, “The Doctrine of Christ,” Ensign, November 2016.
  4. See John S. Robertson, “A Complete Look at Perfect,” BYU devotional address, 13 July 1999.
  5. Holland, “Broken Things to Mend.”

_

Address given by Cassy Budd
Illustrations by Nick Lu

About the Speaker
Cassy Budd is a professor in the School of Accountancy. This text is adapted from her BYU devotional address given 14 February 2017.

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