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Fail again, fail better

A willingness to be vulnerable in front of other people is probably one of my best qualities. I know that sounds like a self-deprecating put-down, and for the longest time—most of my life—I would have agreed with you. In a world where the get-ahead motto tends to be, “Never let them see you sweat,” I have always been someone who is inclined to let people in on my weak spots. I tend to share more than self-preservation might recommend, to take personal or professional risks that might seem risky and to let others know, when they are broken or discouraged or doubting, that I’ve been there or worse, sharing the story of some fiasco that is sure to make them feel better about themselves and maybe even give them a laugh.

But being vulnerable isn’t valued in our society. It’s a habit or virtue that’s denigrated and denied, ignored and ill-advised—until you reach a point in your life where you realize that vulnerability is where all the good stuff starts to happen. For a couple of years, I had a variation of the famous Samuel Beckett quote on my desk at work: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” People would often stop and read it a few times, sure they must be missing something. Why would I promote failure? Because it is only through a willingness to risk failure over and over that we move forward. Like it or not, it is how we learn best; it is how we become who God created us to be. Otherwise, we’re like the fearful tenant in the parable who buries his talent rather than take a chance and do something to multiply and maximize it. He thought he was choosing best in choosing safety, which turned out to be the most dangerous choice of all.

In a TED talk on “Listening to Shame,” bestselling author Brené Brown discusses vulnerability and how it is a measure of strength rather than weakness. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and courage,” she says.

We all know the stories of famous inventors and authors who put that theory to the test: Dr. Seuss rejected 27 times; years of failed attempts by the Wright Brothers before flight was possible; Thomas Edison’s 1,000+ failed attempts at inventing the light bulb; J.K. Rowling’s years as a single mother on welfare before the dazzling success of Harry Potter.

Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” He saw every “failure” as another step toward his goal. In a commencement speech she gave at Harvard University, Rowling said: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case you fail by default.”

It’s not easy to think that way, and it’s even more difficult to live that way. We want to stay on solid ground where we know the route and the outcome beforehand, or so we think. We can’t stand the thought of the perceived humiliation that might come with failure or the I-told-you-so comments from the peanut gallery, and so we choose to be a smaller version of ourselves than we are called to be.

As we head toward the new year, with its push for self-improvement plans that typically don’t deliver, why not approach the months ahead with Samuel Beckett’s word playing on endless loop: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Don’t beat yourself up when you “fail”—a word we too often apply to even the most minor mistakes or infractions—but rather reflect on and revel in your newest discoveries. Like Edison you’ll be figuring out 10,000 ways that don’t work. Eventually, if you invest your talents rather than bury them, you’ll hit on success and realize that failure led you exactly where you needed to be.

This column originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2018, issue of Catholic New York.

Soul Seeing: Light, Love, Forgiveness

A few years ago, I was asked to write an essay for the Soul Seeing column that appears regularly in the National Catholic Reporter. That essay turned into a moment for me. What started as an assignment, became a journey, as is so often the case. The essay I turned in back in 2014 was the first in which I explored in writing my lifelong habit of collecting broken sea shells and looked at it from a spiritual perspective. That original essay grew into more writings on the topic and, eventually, into a retreat day I offer: “Broken, Beautiful, and Beloved: Learning to See Ourselves through God’s Eyes.”

Now my original essay is part of this wonderful collection from Orbis Books. I am so honored to have my writing included alongside that of spiritual writers such as James Martin, Richard Rohr, Joyce Rupp, Brian Doyle, and so many others. A special word of thanks to Mike Leach, publisher emeritus of Orbis Books and creator of Soul Seeing, for asking me to write that first essay and for inviting me to be part of this book. It’s a lovely collection, something that would make the perfect Christmas gift for anyone who’s traveling the spiritual path and looking for a little nourishment along the way.

You can order Soul Seeing directly from Orbis Books or Amazon. You’ll find me on page 179 under the title “Brokenness Lets Us See Where True Beauty Lies.”

And after this, our exile…

Although I have had a lifelong struggle with the Rosary—I’ve always considered myself Rosary-challenged—I started praying this prayer more frequently of late, thanks to the encouragement of Pope Francis. A driving motivation for me in finishing five decades of the Rosary is the chance to end with the Salve, Regina, also known as the Hail, Holy Queen.

I first fell in love with this prayer when I was on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee near Rochester and listened in awe as the Trappist monks chanted Salve, Regina in the darkened chapel as they faced an icon of Mary with the Christ Child, illuminated by a single candle. Haunting and beautiful, powerful and poetic, this is a prayer I will add onto the end of a silent meditation session, or say whenever I need a random dose of Mary and her intercession. Read more

Hail to the Morning

Hail to the Morning

There will be something,
anguish or elation,
that is peculiar to this day alone.
I rise from sleep and say:
Hail to the morning!
Come down to me, my beautiful unknown.*     —Jessica Powers

Read more

There’s beauty even in the fading…

I stood in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express in Syracuse one recent Saturday morning before dawn, fumbling with my car keys and coffee cup and thinking about the long drive and long day ahead. I wasn’t headed home but instead to a Eucharistic Congress hosted by the Diocese of Albany at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, where more than 4,000 pilgrims would converge on the sacred ground of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the North American martyrs. Read more

Looking for truth at the bottom of the abyss

I didn’t want to go Mass this weekend. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did not go to Mass last weekend. I could not. The current scandal and apparent cover-up in our Church had left me numb, spiritually paralyzed. Actually, it had left me professionally numb as well, given the fact that I have devoted most of the past 34 years of my professional life working on behalf of the Church. There was no way I could sit and stand and kneel and sing, worshipping as though life as we knew it could go on as usual. Read more

9/11: Remembering like it was yesterday

Here’s the Life Lines column I wrote 17 years ago, in the days following 9/11. So much has changed since that time. Our world has changed. My family has changed. And yet, for me, this column still resonates with things that feel very much in tune with our world right now. Here’s wishing all of you, all of us a future of peace — peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace on our planet. Read more

Hanging by a thread: What we need our priests and bishops to know right now

For the past few weeks, and especially in recent days, I have been hearing from readers of my monthly Life Lines column, from colleagues working for the Church, from friends and acquaintances, many coming to me with tears in their eyes, anger in their voices, and determination on their faces. Last month I wrote about casting light on the darkness of one scandal; now things have gone from bad to worse with the news out of Pennsylvania. The question I posed then has swelled to an agonizing cry now: How much more? Read more

On a lighter note…

This week our diocese held its fourth annual Concert for Vocations, which has become a favorite among the faithful. More than 600 people turned out at St. Pius X Church in Loudonville for performances by Bishop Scharfenberger, clergy, religious, seminarians, and lay people. Yours truly was among them. I brought the honky tonk. What a great night. I have so many talented co-workers! Here’s my performance of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Read more

Miscarriage: Love and loss 20 years later

My annual tribute to the baby I lost 20 years ago today, the baby I call Grace:

For the past few days I’ve been looking at the numbers on the calendar, growing more and more introspective as we inched closer to August 6. It was 20 years ago today that I learned the baby I was carrying, my second baby, had died 11 weeks into my pregnancy. Read more