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Redefining Success – and Failure

A few weeks ago, my daughter had a difficult day. Her frustrations descended into what some might call “inappropriate behavior” in public, and when we got home, we sat down to talk about what was bothering her. I won’t replicate the whole conversation here out of respect for my daughter, but what it came down to was this: Some things had happened that made her feel like a failure,  like she’s not good enough, like she’s not loved or valued. My daughter sat at the kitchen table, sobs rocking her 9-year-old body, and I was full of compassion even though I wasn’t sure what to do. I assured her that she is valuable, and loved, and special, and that she is not, in any way, a failure. 

Two days later I sat on my bed next to my husband and cried. “I feel like I failure,” I choked out. “I keep getting rejections on my writing. No one wants my manuscript. I don’t know how to help Madeleine. What kind of mother am I? And not one of my friends even called me on my birthday!” (Note: I suppose that at that moment, I was ignoring the fact that hundreds of my friends had wished me happy birthday on Facebook.)

Need I say it? Like mother, like daughter. 

I hope I have not taught her this. I hope I have not taught her that success means doing everything right, or being popular, or being good at everything.

Yet isn’t that how I’ve always defined success?

I was the girl who made straight As, racked up academic awards, sang solos at church, and always tried to be a leader. I wonder if I built my self-esteem from these bricks – these awards, these recognitions.

Now I am being challenged to tear those bricks away, and to believe that I have worth without all those things. 

The world tells us that we need to be beautiful, to be popular, to make a lot of money, to have upward-moving careers, and to be talented to be successful.

Do I have to buy into those expectations? Is it time for me to redefine success – and redefine failure?

* * *

It was my turn to make communion bread for church this week. Yesterday morning I ran to the store at 6:30 am to buy a bag of flour and some yeast. I am always nervous when it’s my turn, because I’m not a good bread-baker. For some reason, my bread doesn’t always rise. I follow directions, I ask for help, and I take advice. But I have failed at making bread as much (or maybe more than) I have succeeded. Yesterday the loaves rose, but not as much as they should have. I felt like they were probably good enough for communion, but not great. So, in the afternoon, I went back to the store for another bag of flour and more yeast packets, and I made the bread one more time.

Those loaves didn’t rise. At all.

Failure. Shame. Embarrassment. Frustration.

Thankfully I’d kept the first batch of loaves and took them to church. No one told me if they were good enough or not. I hope they were, but they might have gotten loaves from the church freezer. You never know.

* * *

I have asked to be taken off the bread list for now. Because I can’t stand to keep failing at this, especially when it’s for church.

But then I wonder: Isn’t church the place where you’re allowed to fail? Where you’re allowed to stumble in, shadowed by weariness and worry, to fall at the feet of Jesus and receive His grace? Where you’re allowed to admit you can’t always get it right, and where you are told, “That’s okay. You are loved.”

My bread was good enough for my son. He was eager to help me knead it, and he desperately wanted to be the one to “put the tattoo on.” That “tattoo” comes from a round wooden seal that imprints symbols onto the bread. You press it into each circular loaf and use a toothpick to poke holes around the circumference of the seal to let the dough “breathe.” (Or something.) When the one batch didn’t rise, he said, “Well, that’s because I didn’t help you with that one. The other bread rose because we both punched it.” He also didn’t care that the second batch was flat; he wanted to keep it. So I put two loaves in Ziploc bags, and he’s been snacking on them. They are dense and doughy – not how most people like bread – but my son loves them. 

So then, where is the failure? Can I claim those moments with my son – our hands touching as we folded and pressed the floured dough, his sweet voice telling me his refreshing view of truth – as a failure? Can I claim the bread was ruined when my son is happily eating it? No, I cannot. Those minutes together, sharing the act of creating, were precious and meaningful. Our creation may not have been beautiful or perfect, but I will not call it a failure. 

Sometimes what feels like a big failure is actually a little success. I gave my son some moments of joy (and some food he likes), and he gave me a renewed vision of myself. Maybe that’s worth more than a hundred perfectly baked loaves of bread.

8 comments

  1. Margie says:

    Hey Karissa! Thanks for remembering our family on Sunday and thanks to you and your family for making the bread for our church. I know how you feel about this and I can say from most of the families I’ve spoken with that everyone goes through this with the bread. Unless of course you forget to make it when it is your turn and then you don’t worry about the rising or what’s inside after it’s baked! I hope you will not stay off the list for long if you do go off. Your children are old enough now to really help out. Plus talk to the priests and deacons, you need one good loaf out of all the ones that are made that can be cut as they need to. I almost always worry when we get puffy in the middle bread after it’s baked because I cannot see if there is an air bubble or if it too crumbly. The not rising at all is the fault of the yeast and — maybe — the weather, but the yeast is what it is and if it is a bad package that’s that. But you know all this. I really appreciate your words about re-defining success because I remember when my daughter was your daughter’s age and things were getting really difficult for her because she was such a perfectionist, she rarely shared her feelings and kept things inside. I ended up just telling her some things even though she didn’t ask and we were not having a conversation about it. I think you do a great job letting your children know, and reinforcing the knowledge, that God made them each and unique and loved. God bless your efforts at parenting! (And God bless your efforts at writing too, I really admire your patience with that process)

  2. Johnna Beth says:

    I just want to give you and Madeleine both a hug! I understand this so well. Reading this brought tears to my eyes and immediately made me think of the line from the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom: “…And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts, and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord…”

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