This post originally appeared on the faculty blog of The Saint Constantine School on October 19, 2018. Featured image: The Return Of The Prodigal Son (1862) by James Tissot.
There’s a little drama that plays itself out countless times a day in the lower grades of The Saint Constantine School. You can catch performances in classrooms, in lunchrooms, on the playground and in various hallways across campus. Most go something like this:
Student: “I can’t do this!”
Teacher: “Have you tried?”
Whether “this” refers to a pair of shoelaces, a Ziploc bag, a paintbrush dipped in blue or the action of drawing a circle on an intimidatingly blank piece of paper, when a student points to their challenge and says “I can’t,” I almost always find that they can’t because they haven’t yet tried. Of course, there are exceptions – those students who actually have tried – but it is also generally true that these students didn’t have the necessary time or patience to overcome the first obstacle that cropped up. Whatever the details, it seems that at least half of my conversations with students end with the same sentence: “Let me see you try.”
It makes sense. Doing hard things means that there is a very real chance of failure, and failure is scary. It makes us think less of ourselves, and it makes us worry that others think less of us, too. We begin choosing early on to protect ourselves, to hide our mistakes and foolishness, to hope that no one will notice. Most of us continue to struggle with this impulse far into adulthood. Again, it makes sense: If failure is bad, then we should only try to do something when we’re certain of success. Right?
I teach art to students between the ages of 3 and 7. These are not the students painting landscapes or drawing vibrantly realistic eyeballs like the ones recently hung in the entrance of Mays. These students are using block crayons. They are learning to create straight and curved lines with 1” paintbrushes. For several weeks, many of them were simply flooding their papers with color because that is easier than trying to control the water and the pigment. At least once per class period, one of my students tires of trying and attempts to convince me or another classmate to finish their artwork for them. More than once, I have said “Let me see you try” and seen, instead, a look of intense exhaustion or anxiety wash over the student’s face. And I absolutely sympathize. Trying is no laughing matter.
But here’s the thing: trying is the only way we will ever learn to be as diligent, brave and charitable as God intended us to be. If you have read The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, you’re familiar with the line from the second section, East Coker: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
In my senior year at Wheaton College, I studied this poem with Dr. Roger Lundin, one of the best thinkers and teachers I have ever known. While most of his students (myself included) were content to interpret this line in a tragically noble light – “all we can do is try and suffer and hope for the best!” – Dr. Lundin was more interested in the second sentence. “The rest is not our business.” What if, he posited, ‘the rest’ didn’t just mean ‘all else’? What if it meant ‘Rest’ with a capital R – that is, our final sabbath rest in Heaven? Given this definition, the line changes subtly but essentially. We’re no longer trying because we have nothing better to do; we’re trying because it is part of the refining fire that prepares us for Heaven. Every decision to stand back up, every prayer for more sustaining Grace, brings us one step closer to Glory.
I’ve been thinking of Dr. Lundin’s interpretation of these words, specifically, throughout these first weeks of school. I’m reminded of them every time I ask a student to try and, even more forcibly, every time I ask that student to try again. Sometimes a student is unusually talented in a given area (or else they are simply lucky), and they overcome their challenge on the first attempt. The shoelaces knot properly, the Ziploc tracks match up, the paint stays where it is meant to stay and the circle is perfectly round. But most students – most people – live in a world of multiple attempts. A world where, as Eliot so optimistically says in earlier lines, “every attempt / is a wholly new start and a different kind of failure”. While it would be so much tidier and infinitely less frustrating to only ever need one attempt, that is simply not the reality of this life. Sometimes our efforts do just feel like different kinds of failure.
But anything that brings us closer to God – anything that pulls us from our innate desire to hide wrongs and to make ourselves seem better than we are – is never easy. Whether we’re learning to draw a circle or learning how to best encourage an individual student, by God’s mercy we learn to do better because we learn to try. How miraculous that when we fail, we’re given the grace to try again. Our Father is bringing us closer to glorious Rest, one failure at a time.