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The significance of failure

January 11, 2011

By Dave Hogsett

New Year’s Eve I caught a part of the Oprah Winfrey interview with J.K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter.  When I tuned in, Rowling was talking about the significance of failure in her own experience and her interpretation of it.
It was at the point in her life where she had hit the bottom with no place to go that Rowling found herself freed to follow her passion, Harry Potter.  What did she have to lose? So what if she failed? In the past the possibility of putting her vision on paper had been thwarted by the possibility that it would just be wasted effort and taking time from other more important things in her life. Now there were no other things. Her situation released her from being inhibited by the fear of failure.
Rowling observed that the only way not to fail is to never attempt anything.  Unfortunately, this option only leads to death. Life has no guarantees.  Anything that one might attempt involves the possibility of failure. The chance of not being successful may not be great, but is still always present.
In reading about famous persons, Rowling discovered that all of them had experienced failure at some time in their lives. Oprah concurred with this, noting that she herself had had her share of failures. In fact, for Rowling, her failures had become the grist for her writing. There is a lot of failure to be found in the Harry Potter saga. A part of the attraction of the stories is how the characters manage when things are not going well.
In the Hebrew Bible a person who had to cope with failure was Moses.  Did Pharaoh release the Hebrew people following the first plague, or the second, or even the third? No! Even when he had started to waver it took the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, and finally, the tenth, before he relented and let the people go. Even then Moses’ mission almost was a failure when Pharaoh sent his armies to subdue the Hebrews.
Moses’ time in the wilderness with the Hebrew people was plagued by problems. They seemed to be always grumbling about something. When he was gone to receive the commandments from God, the people were easily lead astray, constructing a Golden Calf to worship.
After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the people finally did reach the Promised Land. In spite of many failures, problems, and set-backs, the goal had been reached.  Unfortunately, most of those who had started, including  Moses himself, did not cross over the Jordan. The leadership for the final push fell to Joshua.
Near the end of the interview, Oprah asked Rowling what she knew for sure.  For those who are fans of Harry Potter, her response was not a surprise. The one thing of which she is sure is the power of love. She mentioned that she was struck by the last words of those caught in the twin towers on 9/11 to their families: “I love you.”
The greatest apparent failure of all time was Jesus’ death on the cross.  His disciples were devastated and his followers were confused. There seemed to be no hope, no future.   How things radically changed when the power of sacrificial love was made manifest on Easter morning. God’s love through His son has defeated the very forces of Evil.   

Dave Hogsett is a retired United Methodist Church minister now residing in Plymouth.

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