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  • Charlene Mahon

Monday Musings… What’s Your Greatest Fear?

Updated: Feb 28



This past week I had my students anonymously write out their answer to the venerable question about their greatest fear. There was a plethora of answers from specific phobias, to losing a family member, to being unloved and alone forever. But, by far the most common theme was failure.


Now, you might be thinking that that would be expected given that they are students, but I believe it goes beyond them simply thinking about their current situation with tests and assignments.


My proof is that when I mixed up their responses and had each student pick one to read to the class, they took turns interpreting what they felt that person’s fear was really all about. In their assessment, the students talked about the fear of failure being rooted in believing they would be a disappointment to themselves and others; that they would not be able to realize their dreams; that their lives would be meaningless; that failure would be like feeling eternally lost and forgotten.


This is pretty deep stuff. You could see how the statements began with the surface level reality, but then slid down into the depths of the soul and the meaning for their existence.


Failure has often been called our best teacher. How often have you been asked “so what did you learn?” when you’ve messed up. Most people get a little defensive with this well-meaning question, especially since it’s often asked while you’re still in incredible distress from the disaster that screams impending doom in your mind.


It’s hard to see any benefit from failure in the moment. The pain is very real and often can escalate into panic. Especially when you believe there is no second chance, no rewrite of the test, no funds left in the bank account, no restoration for the issue at work or in a relationship. It’s when you perceive no possibility that you believe your greatest fear is coming to life and even threatening to take it. The anchor of failure is around your ankle and dragging you under the water.


When the weight of failure threatens to drown you, it doesn’t help to be told that “when one door closes, another opens.” You can’t see it. You don’t want to see it. Your hope, your life plan, was fixed on something.…and now it’s gone. When you fail, the only thing you are focusing on is rejection, disappointment, guilt, shame, and sometimes rage. Even if you found the proverbial open door, you’d likely want to slam it in their face. Now, you know that’s not the polite thing to do, but your head is screaming: “Easy for you to say. You’ve got no clue what I’m going through!” And that is true.


Failure is one of those roads that you walk alone. Or is it?


Failure is a certainty for each one of us. It’s not “if”, but “when”. The experience of it may be unique to you, but it’s a universal construct. No one is exempt from this life test.


Even the students who graduate from Harvard will face this reality, as J.K. Rowling, pointed out in her commencement address to the 2008 graduating class. She implored this magna cum laude group to recognize failure as the tool that can “strip away the inessentials”. And she’s right. When whatever you have worked towards is taken away, you’re left with only what truly matters.


What truly matters in life is not the degrees, the money in your bank account, the number of friends you have, or the promotion you’ve dreamed of. I recognize that you do need food in your belly, a roof over your head, and someone to love you, but even then, your mind must cast its thoughts to the One Thing that is truly essential. And if you find it, then you can make sense of the failures in your life and not be pulled under by the anchor of fear.


You see, failure is a great equalizer. Everyone comes into the world naked and unaware. There are no guarantees, no promises that anyone will live a successful life by the world’s standards. And yet, so much time and effort are expended to ensure you achieve your definition of success, when it can all be taken away in a second. You, and everyone of the planet, have an equal opportunity to make a choice. When what you held dear is taken from you, how will you keep from sinking?


There is only One Thing that will rescue you from the bottom of the ocean of despair. And it’s going to require your humility to see it, understand it, and grab a hold of it.


There is only One Thing that is truly essential in this life and that is faith. Faith in the One who created you, who brought you into this world, who set you on a course of His choosing, and who has been calling to you since you were cognitively capable of recognizing your need of a power greater than yourself. This is the teaching moment of failure.


When you fail, you realize you cannot do life on your own. You try, in your own strength, and see that it just adds another weight to the anchor. You may have temporary ‘success’, and you hold out hope, only to be faced with another disappointment, rejection, or overwhelming challenge. There is no peace, no contentment, and always the lurking fear that it could happen again. You are in bondage to the fear of the possibility of failure.


When you hear that quote “when one door closes, another opens” you often stop paying attention to the one giving the advice, and in your frustration, you sink further down to the ocean floor. But you needed to keep listening. Alexander Graham Bell, who made the statement, continued: ”but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the One which has opened for us”.


The door has always been open for you. You have spent so much time wrapped up in the aftermath of the failure that you’ve missed the Buoy, the Lifeline, that has been there all along. Eduardo Ramos who posted the picture that I’ve put at the top of this blog, was in the same predicament. He had a subtitle on his Twitter feed stating: “Life is Hell”. Obviously, he felt himself sinking believing there was no way out. But there is a Way.


It requires that you humble yourself, knowing you can’t do this on your own. You must take ownership and admit your failings, and lastly, surrender your will to the One Thing that is truly essential, to the One who never fails.


Are you willing to do that?


If you are, you will discover that disappointment will disappear; dreams greater than you imagined will materialize; your life will have purpose and meaning; and the works of your hands will leave an imprint for eternity.



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