Experiencing grace in times of failure

Letting go and letting God does not mean that we're suddenly perfect.
Our Faith
One day during my sophomore year of high school, I found myself crying in the hallway. I had just left my chemistry class and was heading down the hall to my locker. When I got there, I opened it, stuck my head inside, and let myself have a good sob before I went to my next class. I remember this moment with vivid detail, even down to what I was wearing (JNCO wide-leg jeans with my favorite black T-shirt). The reason? I had earned a C on the first chemistry exam of the year.
Used to being a straight-A student, I was thrown for a loop by the large red C at the top of my test. I didn’t know at the time that my chemistry teacher had designed the test so most students would fail, intentionally including questions that we would not know how to answer. This was, according to him, to teach humility and to make sure we all knew we did, in fact, have something to learn in his class.
I cried again later that year when I failed my driver’s license test for the second time. I sat in the hallway of our house and wept with bitterness and resentment at the injustice that required suburban teenagers to know how to parallel park. In the midst of my wallowing, my mother sat down beside me. She told me to remember this feeling: “It’s how some kids feel all the time, when they try to learn math, or reading, or how to play an instrument.” All these things came easily to me. My mother was trying to teach me how to accept failure with compassion and grace. On that day, I chose spite instead.
I’ve cried over my own failures with increasing regularity as I’ve gotten older, but nothing has driven home the extent of my shortcomings quite like having children. The totality of responsibility toward these tiny humans paired with my own feelings of being overwhelmed or bored has left me reeling at times. I am dying to get this “right,” but over and over again I lose patience. I yell. I check out.
I have been a perfectionist my entire life, but that does not mean I always do things perfectly. It means when I do things imperfectly (which is frequently), I try to forget about them, dumping those memories into a bucket of shame that hangs in my closet. Once in a while the bucket overflows with feelings of paralyzing inadequacy that leave me wallowing. But being a parent has forced me to get rid of the bucket, because I can’t be paralyzed. My kids still need to eat breakfast even if I’d prefer to lash out because my failures are suddenly on display.
After spending so many years trying to look perfect while hiding my flaws, being a parent forces me to lean back into the hammock of grace. I suspect most of us have experiences like that—moments and situations that force us to accept that we’re mostly doing the best we can, even as we stumble and scrape our way toward the next day. The experience of grace lets my less-than-perfect soul rest for a moment, so I can move on to what is really important.
Of course, letting go and letting God does not necessarily mean that I am suddenly perfect. My anger still flares at times when it shouldn’t, and I still find myself feeling helpless in the face of my own faults. I know that as my children grow older, they will bear scars of their childhood, just as they will carry strengths, as we all do. But I also trust that their souls—and mine—rest in the care of One who is much bigger than I am. And that gives me peace not to be perfect, but mostly to be good enough.
If I could go back in time and talk to that teenager crying over a C on her chemistry test, I would tell her there are many things in life that will bring heartbreak. But our own imperfections need not be debilitating. Instead, our moments of failure give us an opportunity to embrace freedom and peace.
Back in the infancy of our faith, Paul opened and closed his letters to various communities with a salutation of grace. In the middle he often included instruction or chiding. But in the beginning, and at the end, there was grace. Whatever our blemishes, whatever our failures—grace abounds.
This column appeared in the June 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 6, page 8).
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