When I stop long enough to be even a little bit introspective, it doesn’t take me long to realize that I have a deeply ingrained fear of failure. Classes at IU start in just one week and I’m terrified. I’m not afraid of learning. I’m afraid to fail. Afraid I can’t focus or study or learn or “perform” well enough. And afraid that if I don’t do any of those things well enough, that I will be labeled a failure.
And its not just school. My fear of being a failure permeates every area of my life. Its what drives me to work hard, not just at my job, but in everything I do. Its why I dedicated hours upon hours at becoming a decent volleyball player, and why I get so frustrated when I perform poorly. Its what pushed me to get good grades and to be the very best teacher I could be. There’s really nothing wrong with any of those things. But fear of being a failure is also what drags me into fretful indecision with concerns of whether leaving Tanzania after four years makes me a failure, or if not teaching even though I have a teaching license/degree makes me a failure, or if moving back in with my parents as a 28-year-old makes me a failure, or if not being able to both teach and study makes me a failure, or if eventually hating my doctoral studies and quitting makes me a failure. And the problem with all of that is that this label of being a “failure” is just that: a label. Its like a name tag stuck on my forehead, identifying me when I look in the mirror. And perhaps more ironically, its a name tag that, in most case, no one else sees.
There is a distinct difference between failing and being a failure. Failing is like taking a spill off a bicycle or a horse or a skateboard. You mess up, you get back up, you (hopefully) learn something, and you try it again. Failing is essential to growth and learning. It usually hurts a little (or a lot!), but it isn’t about identity. But when I take that mistake, that failure, and use a giant red Sharpie to create an invisible label for myself, defining myself as a failure, it stops being about learning and starts being about identity.
Ironically, doing all of the things that initially felt like failing (moving home and living with my parents, leaving Tanzania, not teaching, etc.) have been extremely healthy for me. God has gifted me with coworkers who don’t see living at home as a failure, who don’t care whether I’m using my degree as a teacher or just selling bikes, and who don’t see my four-year term in Tanzania as an inability to “handle it” long-term. But those fears are still there. Even if they don’t see the name tag, I do. And if the name tag isn’t labeling me a failure for my life choices, its calling me out for my inability to keep up with the group on Saturday morning rides, or for not getting more photography clients, or for having knee pain that keeps me from running as much as I would like to. And there is some truth in it: I’m not as fas as the guys, I don’t have a ton of clients, and my knee is bothering me. But that doesn’t mean I am a failure.
Worth is something that can never be determined by my accomplishments. If it is, I will never be enough. I won’t be fast enough, energetic enough, determined enough, or successful enough. “Enough” is such an elusive thing. Its why, in my moment of introspection, I remembered a bookmark tucked inside one of my old Bibles. On the top of the bookmark, it reads: “Who I am in Christ.” Underneath, are three headings: “I am Accepted,” “I am Secure,” and “I am Significant.” Each is supported by a list of verses that demonstrate the power and freedom that come in realizing that my identity is not about what I do, or even what I fail to do. When I find my identity in Christ alone, the name tag is stripped away, the red Sharpie is washed clean, and I am able to fail, wipe the dirt off, and stand tall.
Though someone gave me that bookmark when I was in high school and I’ve read it thousands of times since then, its a reminder I still need. Tonight, the reminder came in the form of a chapter from a friend’s book I’m pre-reading (which I am SO thrilled to tell you about soon!), but it was perfect timing for where I’m walking right now. I’m thinking I need to write a reminder on my bathroom mirror for tomorrow morning, because I so easily forget: being a failure is not something I need to fear, because it is not who I am.