On Love and Failure

Well, best laid plans and all. I should be telling you today about the glamorous publishing event I went to last night, only last night the train I was travelling in broke down and I lost so much time that in the end the only sensible thing to do was turn around and go home. So, that was not quite the evening out I’d been intending.

And I’m behind on my reading because this term, usually the quietest of my university terms (in fact this time last year, I had no students whatsoever) has been incredibly busy, and I am going into college on days I wouldn’t normally just to try to get through the backlog. Plus, exam term problems are tough ones. I spent two and a half hours with one student on Tuesday. And whether we made any progress at all is, alas, far from certain.

But I have been doing a lot of research reading in the area of liberation theology, which has turned out to be strangely apposite. What is liberation theology, I hear you cry? Well, I’ll give you a quote: ‘Liberation theology believes that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed and encourages the Church to participate in creating a new reign of life in which all people live with justice and love.’ It was a movement started in the 1970s by a priest working in the poor parts of Lima in Peru, a man called Gustavo Gutierrez, who believed that the story of Jesus is that of a man embedded in his historical context, fighting against imperial powers and doing everything possible to help those suffering social injustice. To live a spiritual life was, to his mind, to align oneself with the poor and the marginalized and make every effort to improve their situation.

Now the interesting by-product of this research for me has been about love. When you try to help other people, as I do in my day job, you realise pretty quickly that human beings are hard to help. They resist. They protest. They struggle. It is much easier to be miserable than to make the superhuman effort to overcome difficulties and change bad habits. So trying to help other people, even though they are crying out for help, is often a frustrating and exhausting business. What is intriguing about liberation theology is the understanding that faith keeps people going. Spirituality is a way of loving life, even when life is thankless and full of failure and never going to get better. I find that interesting because it’s not rational, and yet it’s emotionally logical. It responds, if you like, to the craziness that is suffering itself. I’m not sure I have thought my way around this sufficiently yet to be talking about it, but it corresponds in my head to the way that a child who is behaving very badly is probably a child very much in need of love. Or, to put it another way, when everything is going wrong in our lives and our instinct is inevitably to feel abandoned, the only thing that will pull us through is absolute belief in the constancy of our goodness, our value, our loveability.

I see this in my students who, because they are getting things wrong, are attacking themselves with their own anger; they quickly believe they are worthless. But getting things wrong is a daily part of the human condition. It has to be, because if we got things right all the time, we would be utterly swollen headed and insufferable. We are often at our least loveable when we are convinced we are right. Accepting our own mistakes is another description of humility, and humility is what makes us bearable to be with, not to mention compassionate towards other people because we understand how things so easily go wrong. This is the strange thing with my students. They don’t really want to be told how to write essays and revise for exams; they really want me to reassure them they are lovable. Even more than this, they need me to put them back in touch with love for themselves. For some reason, we’ve made love something that is in short supply, only available to us in the moments of supreme achievement. And love isn’t like that at all, or it wouldn’t be worthy of the name. Love is what we need to be able to find every time we mess up.

It is easy to say this and yet it can be very hard to do, but to put ourselves in touch with our own properly unconditional love is, I think, a very powerful way forward. And now, to try to think of a way to say this to the students that will not bewilder or embarrass them!




35 thoughts on “On Love and Failure

  1. What a shame about the evening. My wishing you a great time probably cursed the whole thing. Terribly sorry you had such a frustrating time. Now we’ll never know how it was and I’m sure you would have given a terrific account.
    As to your main account, I can’t agree more as I am regularly ready to beat myself up about my perceived failures. I think from past posts you have a need to get it right too. Perhaps this post is a sign of changing times and perspectives. The trouble I find (and you are right about old routines), is that with the best will in the world it is so easy to revert to the old formula. Some how love has become narrowed in our world. Possibly the media has too tight a focus for us and too narrow an interest and the concept/feeling has been put in a strait-jacket – a great outpouring of a thing or zilch. Where has the recognition of the small, everyday little acts of love gone? And is it that lack of noticed little love events and their devaluation that make achievement the substitute. Love is almost an embarrassment at times. There is also a lot of fake affection about of course, especially on tv, little kisses now di rigeur on chat shows and the like.

    • My dear friend, your wishes were lovely. My failure to get to the party was entirely due to the rotten state of Greater Anglian railways. But I was sorry not to make it.

      You are quite right, I have definitely been someone ready to accept mistakes in others, but be very hard on myself. Spending a lot of time in Cambridge is not a great way to foster self-esteem, either! But I’m all about changing that – in a purely pragmatic way. Life is tough enough, often, so why add to it myself? But bad habits are famously hard to change – I read somewhere it takes three solid weeks, putting in effort every day, to break a bad habit. It’s ages when you’re doing it, but I suppose not a lot of time in the overall scheme of things.

      As for the media, well, I am ever more horrified at its rageful envy, and its delight in blaming and shaming and prurient curious finger pointing. I am sorry that we let it into our lives so much. We English aren’t so great at talking about love in the first place, and I can’t ever see myself inside a church, singing a hymn. But the whole concept of how we use love in the day to day business of living, I find quite fascinating. It’s like we have this incredible magic spell but we’ve forbidden ourselves from using it, preferring the dark arts instead.

  2. How interesting that you’re reading about Liberation theology! I read a bit about it when I was still in seminary, and it’s interesting stuff. I’m very interested in the connection you’re making between Liberation theology and individual personal confidence. I never would have thought of that, but in thinking about it, I can see how they relate. For the poor and oppressed, the belief that God is on their side can give them confidence to rise up and speak truth to power, even when it’s dangerous. And for the individual oppressed by her own failings, it can be helpful to know that God is for us even when we mess up. It provides a sort of emotional bulwark against the consequences of failure and makes it easier to press on. That’s my experience anyway.

    • ooh Teresa, you are just the person I should be discussing this with! Have you ever come across a writer and preacher named Cornel West? I’ve just read an essay (well a speech really) of his and thought it was wonderful, so erudite and yet so funny and engaging. I always feel a little uncertain about the idea of morals, because that means someone gets to choose the rules and impose them on others, but the idea of ethics – that we think carefully how to treat other people, sits very well with me. And at its best, some religious thinking is excellent on ethics.

      • I wish I could remember more of what we read in my classes. I’ve heard of Cornel West but never read anything of his; I don’t think he came up at all in my classes. James Cone is the big name in African American liberation theology. And you know about Gutierrez. The thing that’s interesting–and controversial–about liberation theology is its focus on systemic injustice. My religious background focused more on the individual, and taking that wider view was completely new to me.

        I agree about the appeal of ethics. It provides a useful framework for dealing with the world. There are some great Christian ethicists out there too: Hauerwas, Yoder, the Niebuhrs, Bonhoeffer. Lots of good thinkers in that area.

  3. So sorry you weren’t able to make it, how annoying for you!

    Speaking of Jesus being pro helping the poor, and the influence of that on those with faith, I’ve just read a very good novel which addresses the topic! Canon in Residence by VL Whitechurch – briefly mentioned it on my blog today.

  4. I’ve always believed that lack of self-esteem is a great and major cause of anmger, frustration and suffering. Love is, of course, one way in which self-esteem is boosted. If someone is deeply loved they realise that they must to some extent be love-worthy.

    Sorry you missed your big event after looking forward to it. So what were you wearing when the train broke down? Were you in your jeans? (And in case anyone thinks that’s a weird question – which I suppose it is – what to wear was the subject of some earlier debate!)

    • Absolutely, because lack of self-esteem is after all lack of self love. If we feel loved, or even better, can find ways to love ourselves (not as narcissists but as ordinary, valuable people) we’re more than halfway to solving those problems.

      I was in my jeans, but I’d dressed them up with my best top and some jewellery. I was probably a bit overdressed in the end for what turned out to be a long trip on the train!!

  5. So sorry about your evening – bloody trains!

    As for your students, surely you’ve answered your own question – the main thing is not exactly what you say to them (though I’m certain all your advice is wise and well expressed), but saying it with love. They’re very lucky to have you. I hope you are sufficiently mindful of what this must take out of you and your own need for debriefing, supervision (as in what psychotherapists get, not what Cambridge students get), or similar.

    • Quite!

      Some days are more draining than others, but I do notice it now when a session has been hard work. It’s good when the student’s director of studies is involved because then I can call them up and have a chat to decompress. But a lot of students come to me because they have fallen by the wayside and I’m a sort of last hope. That can feel a bit tricky. Cambridge is dreadful, really, for that debriefing sort of thing and you’re right it is so helpful.

  6. Sorry about the missed publishing event. But I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the links between liberation theology, love and troubled students. Liberation theology was very much a part of my student days and I still feel a bit sad that the politicians have taken over that message (and corrupted it). Good luck with your students. I like the message that they are loveable and need to accept failure as part of the process. I also know from experience how difficult it is not to beat yourself up sometimes!

    • Pete, I had no idea you would know about liberation theology – my friends always surprise me with the depth of their knowledge! And my poor students are so in the habit of berating themselves. Sometimes it is impossible to stop them. But I do try because it just adds further stress onto stress (and believe me, there are reasons I know this as an ex-self-beater!).

  7. Too bad you never made it to that evening.
    Like ocanlibrarian I was wondering whether yo were wearing those jeans (a reason why I didn’t comment on the last post, I would have been the only one to strongly advise “little black dress”. Jeans -no way!):)
    As for helping people… It isn’t easy. Many do not really want help at all…

    • I love little black dresses on other people, but they don’t do much for me! 🙂 I was really sorry to miss the evening, but hopefully there’ll be other ones in the future. And yes, many people want things to get better without having to change their ways. Alas! it doesn’t quite work that way…

  8. I had a whole post written in response to this about dealing with people at the end of their lives as I often do and then realized it was basically addressing one line in your outstanding post, not the heart of the post in its entirety. So for now I’ll just say I am sorry you didn’t make your evening out – and this post proves just how compassionate and empathetic you are. Your students are lucky to have you!

    • I would love to know what you said – you are always such an interesting and engaging writer Courtney, and you must have a fascinating perspective on this issue! And thank you for your lovely comment. Bless you!

  9. It’s unfortunate about the mess-up of the public transit, so what’s new… However, I’m sure you’ll have another chance in the future and I look forward to your sharing of future literary events.
    As for the main event here on your post, I just feel you’re an examplary teacher. While many teach to impart knowledge, you do your job out of love, and that’s highly admirable. But you’re right as your last sentence show: “…to try to think of a way to say this to the students that will not bewilder or embarrass them!” And the other side of the coin is… in today’s society, I know teachers, and yes, even Sunday School teachers at church, are warned not to hug their students for fear of being wrongly accused, it is definitely a challenge to even express love and care.

    • I admit that I don’t hug students – it’s not what they expect of me, you know? I mean, I would if I thought it would help, but I know it doesn’t. It’s problematic because lots of students cry when they see me (because they are upset already, I hasten to add, not because I upset them!) and then they feel terribly embarrassed and really I don’t mind in the least. It just shows that they care very deeply about their studies. Perhaps I should put up a sign saying ‘It’s okay to cry!’. I’m left with just smiling encouragingly – at the end of a long day I can have face ache! 🙂

      • Sometimes a smile and a listening ear is what they need. You’re a caring teacher, indeed. As for my comment, I meant for little children, their teachers now aren’t supposed to hug. I’m sure physical touch and contact is a definite no no for those in higher grades, let alone university. So what’s left may well be an arm’s length smile… 😉

  10. I think learning to accept one’s mistakes is part of the growth and maturity process. I have learned to move from a sense of entitlement and believing I am always right to accepting my mistakes in humility. I think this is a lesson that many adults never learn. I cannot tell you how many people I work with who think they are right all the time and can never accept that they are wrong. And I think you are right that some of this is psychological. The people who have the hardest time admitting they are wrong are the ones with troubled childhoods and troubled relationships who think they need to be right in order to be loveable. This post finally helped me make the connection! Thanks for an insightful post, Litlove.

    • What an interesting post and comments too. It seems to me that so much of our sense of self-worth is invested in our performance. If we could only learn that a bad grade – or our own personal equivalent – is no more than an indication of what we need to learn and improve. This is a lesson I’m still learning myself. Teachers of all ages have enough to do without shoring up our egos too.

      • Karen -you are so right. The wrong mark is usually about a tiny bit of knowledge, not a judgment on our entire being! But it is hard to remember. I’ve found over the years that if I can make my students feel safe and comfortable from the start, then the whole learning process goes better. We must learn so early that doing the ‘wrong thing’ is dangerous.

    • I remember reading somewhere that if you grew up as a neglected child, the one advantage to that was that you were never responsible for anything, and so you never had to be wrong. I found that a very intriguing perspective. And you’re right – thinking that being wrong is not lovable is highly problematic too. I completely agree that it’s a very important developmental stage. I’m fine with being wrong about lots of things, but if I think I’ve handled another person clumsily, I’ll get really upset about that. I suppose I’m always afraid that either a) there’ll be retribution or b) I’ll have made them suffer unnecessarily and really ought to feel bad. Although really, if someone is a genuine friend or an okay person, they will give me leeway to mess up a little occasionally. Or at least I hope so! 🙂

  11. As a fairly stressed out Cambridge finalist who enjoys your blog, can I just say thank you very much for writing this, you’ve made the task ahead seem less insurmountable.

    • Oh Emmita, what a lovely comment, thank you! And the very best of luck with your exams. Remember that tripos is a silly hoop-jumping exercise and your real, rich-beyond-measure education is what you’ve just had, and no one can take it away from you.

  12. What a beautiful post, Litlove. “Love is what we need to be able to find every time we mess up.” So apt. And think link between humility imperfection and love–yes. Something to think about every time I fall short of the mark myself!

    • It’s the kind of thing that we all need to remind ourselves of all the time! Why IS is so hard to hang onto? Thank you for your lovely comment, Lilian!

  13. I’m definitely one who doesn’t give myself a break when it comes to making mistakes (even perceived mistakes or failures really–failures by my own standards)–but then you already know all about that. I am trying to work on it, though! Interesting connection to Liberation Theology, which is not something I really know anything about–I love how you are able to make connections between different aspects of life–it makes a lot of sense–and I think there is a certain amount of desire for that sense of lovability to be reinforced by those who are trying to help us. Sorry you weren’t able to make it to the publishing event–public transportation can be a real pain sometimes–and inevitably it is always the times we need it the most that it lets us down! Hope you’re able to take some time out and rest over the weekend–working one on one with students must be hugely draining sometimes!

    • Danielle, you are SO not alone! And to be honest, I always find that it’s the nicest and cleverest people who worry most about making mistakes. Liberation theology was a surprising find for me, and one that turned out to be much more interesting than I expected. And I love making analogies – the sort of thing you are really NOT allowed to do in academia! I was so sorry to miss the evening, I’d been looking forward to it. But I’ve had a nice restful weekend and if I can just catch up with my blogging a bit I’ll be more or less ready to face next week!

  14. My husband studied liberation theology at seminary (James Cone, the theologian who focuses on African Americans and liberation theology teaches at his alma mater) and also the social gospel, which ties into that, both of which play huge parts in his own theories. Liberation theology is where I see religion being used in its most positive, beneficial ways. The prosperity gospel (its polar opposite, in which people are basically “rewarded” with material goods by God if they are good and punished by not receiving material goods if they are bad) is where I see religion being used in its most negative way.

    Love, humility, and forgiveness are probably the three words Bob uses most in his own preaching. I think all the time about how the way people are taught about God’s love and forgiveness (or lack thereof, as the case may be, depending on the teacher) can either make them loathe themselves or can give them great confidence and help them to love and forgive themselves. Even those who have had very little positive reinforcement in their own lives and very little love can be given hope and learn to forgive themselves if they are taught to believe in a loving, forgiving God. These days, there’s so much negativity and judgment in the world and so few are taught about any kind of God, I often wonder how young people cope and what they do about all that self-loathing. It’s nice to know there are people out there like you who are in contact with such young people, thinking about ways to help them cope.

  15. Wow, it’s great to hear about liberation theology again! It’s not something you hear about much these days. Or maybe I’m just not hanging out with the right crowd.

    When I lived in New York I spent some time with the Catholic Worker movement. I was a journalism student then, and wrote some articles on them, and ended up spending time with them even after the articles were finished. They were applying the principles of liberation theology before liberation theology existed, and were always telling me about some Papal encyclical from the 60s, whose name I forget now. I found it all quite inspiring. I was raised an atheist and never had much time for religion, but they struck me as people who really lived the truth of performing the works of mercy and loving their fellow man (and woman too, of course!).

    Lovely article, anyway! The trick is in the last paragraph – how to talk to your students about it all without embarrassing or bewildering them. I’m afraid I can’t say anything other than “Good luck! Let me know how it all works out.”

  16. Oh liberation theology! I am fond and familiar. How good that it is making you think of this valuable thing to tell your students — I think however you say it to them, they will find it to be of value. At least I certainly would have (and do, now!), although you do run the risk of their casting back in your face your attitude about mistakes when they’ve missed a deadline.

    Your travel difficulties sound awful! Nothing stresses me out quite like failing travel plans.

  17. I hope you found a way to communicate these thoughts to your students. Your insights always seem to hit me when I need them the most and for that I thank you!

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