Saturday, August 08, 2015

You Are Not a Failure

One of my favorite ways to catch people's attention is to use the statement, "your child is not defective."

You see, parents often get the message that their children have not measured up in both specific and general ways. In an education system driven by standards and data, the focus is most often on what is not being done well, which is labeled as a deficiency and then becomes the center of attention and efforts. And therefore so many parents have been willing to believe, when they hear it, that their children are defective.

We're also very good at blaming the parents. They know it, and they internalize that. It's pretty natural to make the logical leap: a defective child means a defective parent or parents.

It's an easy argument to make because, like so many other social and emotional issues, there is truth to it. As parents we are the major influences in our children's lives, and often their successes and challenges are pretty reflective of our own ups and downs. But it's a truth that depends on a way of viewing life that focuses on people's deficiencies rather than working to help them, and it's based on a system of school/work/life where our not feeling confident is arguably beneficial to those trying to convince us to buy their expertise or products.

I spoke to a group in our church recently about how adults can feel like failures in their lives. I could see several people in the congregation physically nodding their heads, as though just recognizing this deep emotional pain out loud produced an involuntary physical response. No matter how much we try to make things look good on the outside, we can feel broken and alone on the inside. We, more than those around us, can see all the ways we feel we have not measured up.

In a purely biological framework, success and failure are just objective outcomes of life, reproduction, and death. Believing that the "losers" in the game of life have lost through their own weakness would be the natural conclusion if we thought that life was nothing more than biology. But if there is something more to our lives--something spiritual or moral--then seeing others or ourselves as failures is abhorrent. Would we say that the child with Down Syndrome is a failure? Or the person missing a limb is defective? Why is it so easy, then, to find fault with ourselves, even if our problems are less outwardly visible?

We make mistakes. We fail at things. But you and I are not failures, we are not losers. The moment we allow someone to tell us that we are, or we tell ourselves we are, we have surrendered. It feels like this is one of the great choices in life: are we victims, destined to always feel that we have never measured up; or are we agents, capable of learning, of getting better, and of creating things of worth and value? I know I have friends who don't really understand how someone intellectual could also be faithful, but in part my devotion is the conscious decision to believe in the divine worth and value of every individual--which would include ourselves--and the belief in the opportunity for, and the ability of. individuals to repair and change their lives.

Like I've argued in my posts here, feelings of failure unfortunately often stem from our school experiences. To believe that a child is defective because he or she is not good at one or more particular tasks, the way that we define those tasks, is one of the most powerful traps of modern education. Then to move from the delicate balance of a child's unique temperament, personality, skills, and interests to blaming the adults in his or her life is another powerful trap. It's not because there isn't truth to the deep connection between children's behavior and the behavior of the adults in their lives--of course there is--but focusing on weaknesses and assigning blame in a very complex system of influences are about the two worst ways to improve lives that you can imagine.

One of my personal heroes is Angela Maiers, who reminds us that "You Matter." And one of my favorite movies is The Kid with Bruce Willis, who though outwardly very successful has difficulty finding the ability to actually declare at the end of the movie, "I am not a loser!"

Whoever you are, however you are feeling right now, you are not a loser. You are not a failure. You may have made mistakes, you may have amends or significant progress to make, but I reject those who, individually or through systemic processes, push others into a state of "assumed inadequacy." Behind those who would have you believe you are a failure is their own inability to feel good about themselves without you feeling bad about yourself.

We cannot believe in the potential of every child unless we believe in our own potential. 

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