On Failure and Learning to Live from the Inside Out

“I am a failure.”

It was just before Good Friday this past spring and I was feeling besieged by a higher than normal level of self-criticism. I had retreated to my prayer space, and as I stood on my yoga mat, breathing, moving, and praying, the thought came to me: “I am a failure.”

Quite possibly, with only a little exaggeration, these were the most liberating words I have ever heard. I repeated them: “I am a failure!” A little louder the next time, with a rising sense of elation, a lightening of my heart, an opening of my mind: “I am a failure!” And I couldn’t have felt better. In fact, I spent most of Easter weekend walking on a cloud of freedom.

My prayers were answered in that seemingly depressing phrase.

In a strange twist, claiming my identity as a failure robbed my inner critic (that part of me that clamours for perfection and decries the smallest perceived falter) of all its power. For the weekend at least, I was free. I could see that the framework of perfection was faulty; the game of achievement was a deception; the task of living up to some abstract ideal was spiritually bankrupt.

“I am a failure….and that is good. And I am loved.”

I still return to this prayer on a regular basis. Some wisdom takes quite some time to really live within us. And for a long time, I have unconsciously seen the standards of my perfectionistic inner critic as God. I took a set of external standards, of what a good Christian looks like, and I have assumed that God is measuring my performance against these standards. God is the examiner, Jesus is the perfect student, and so I had better be exceptional as well. Not much love and grace in this framework!

Over the years, I have been quite interested in the idea of vocation. How do I find my calling? What is God’s will in my life and where might the Spirit be leading?

These are important questions, but I have come to see how the idea of God’s will as an external truth to be found and obeyed just reinforces my anxiety about ‘getting it right’ – whatever ‘it’ is! I imagine I am not alone in turning the quest for vocation into a paradigm of success or failure.

Parker Palmer, in his powerful book, “Let Your Life Speak”, reflects on his own journey with moving from the success/failure paradigm to listening for a different way:

So I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out.”*

For the past six years or so, I have been exploring what it means to live from the inside out. Through these explorations, God has shown me such beauty, delight, and love…all intertwined with deep pain, struggle, and difficult realities I would prefer not exist.

I have discovered all of these things by learning to listen. To listen from beneath.** To listen from beneath the chatter of my mind for the whispers of my soul. To listen from beneath spiritual platitudes for the speech of the Spirit.

And it is through this listening that I have encountered my vocation: who I am in God, and the work that flows forth when I hear God calling my name.

So often our work emerges from our own experiences and I find myself with a passion for supporting others on this journey to vocation, especially young adults. I have a dream of creating a program that would bring people together, of all ages, who are in spaces of transition, wondering what is next, and are seeking to learn more about living from the inside out.

I am envisioning a group that meets monthly, for a year or so, for a retreat day that would include some teaching on spirituality and vocation, space to practice listening deeply to oneself and to God through prayer, and the opportunity to try out different tools for discernment.

I would love more conversation partners as I continue to engage with this vision. I am so curious how others understand and experience the idea of vocation.

  • What does this idea of a ‘calling’ mean to you?
  • How have you been supported in the past as you’ve tried to discern the Spirit’s leading?
  • What support do you desire?
  • Or maybe you have no idea what this whole ‘Spirit leading’ thing could possibly be about….I’d be interested in hearing about that too.

What do you long for as you consider the question of how to live from the inside out?

If you’re still reading….and you would like to meet up for a conversation, or join a small group for conversation, please send me an email!
I would love to hear from you.

*Taken from “Let Your Life Speak” by Parker Palmer, pg 3.
**Taken from “Listening for the Soul” by Jean Stairs, pg 17.

img_0410Tamara Shantz lives in Kitchener where she serves as a spiritual director and Enneagram teacher. Thanks to her partner’s beekeeping hobby, one of her current favourite activities is learning about the bees that live and work in her backyard.

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