Friday, December 14, 2018

John Was a Failure...

Success is the ability to go from failure to failure
without losing your enthusiasm.

Winston Churchill

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Today I'd like to share a story with you, one I heard many years ago at a midnight service on a snowy Christmas Eve. I still remember the warmth of the small church, overfull with extra bodies and glowing with candlelight reflected from our faces as we listened intently to this lovely story by Robert Fulghum (from his book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It):

 John Pierpont died a failure. In 1886, he came to the end of his days as a government clerk in Washington, DC with a long string of personal defeats abrading his spirit.
Things began well enough. He graduated from Yale, which his grandfather had helped to found, and chose education as his profession with some enthusiasm.
He was a failure at school teaching. He was too easy on his students. 
And so, he turned to the legal world for training.  He was a failure as a lawyer. He was too generous to his clients and too concerned about justice to take the cases that brought good fees.
The next career he took up was that of dry good merchant. He was a failure as a business man.  He could not charge enough for his goods to make a profit, and was too liberal with credit. 
In the meantime, he had been writing poetry and, though it was published, he didn't collect enough royalties to make a living. He was a a failure as a poet. 
Politics seemed a place where he could make some difference and he was nominated as the Abolition Party candidate for governor of Massachusetts.  He lost. Undaunted, he ran for Congress under the banner of the Free Soil Party. He lost. He was a failure as a politician. 
The Civil War came along and he volunteered as a chaplain of the 22nd Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers. Two weeks later he quit, having found the task too much of a strain on his health. He was 76 years old. He couldn't even make it as a Chaplain. 
Someone found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury Department in Washington, and he finished out the last five years of his life as a menial file clerk. He wasn't very good at that either.  His heart was not in it.
John Pierpont died a failure. He had accomplished nothing he set out to do or be. There's a small memorial stone marking his grave in Mt Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The words in the granite read,  POET PREACHER PHILOSOPHER PHILANTHROPIST.
From this distance in time, one might insist that he was not in fact a failure. His commitments to social justice, his desire to be a loving human being, his active engagement in the great issues of his times, and his faith in the power of the human mind, these are not failures. And much of what he thought of as defeat became success. Education was reformed, legal processes were improved, credit laws were changed, and above all, slavery was abolished once and for all.
Why am I telling you this? It is not an uncommon story. Many 19th century reformers had similar lives, similar failures and successes. In one very important sense, John Pierpont was not a failure. Every year, come December, we celebrate his success. We carry in our hearts and minds a life long memorial to him. It's a song, not about Jesus or angels or even Santa Claus. It's a terribly simple song about the simple joy of whizzing through the cold white dark of winter's gloom in a sleigh pulled by one horse, and with the company of friends, laughing and singing all the way. No more, no less, than Jingle Bells. John Pierpont wrote Jingle Bells!
To write a song that stands for the simplest joys, to write a song that three or four hundred million people around the world know, a song about something they've never done, but can imagine, a song that every one of us large and small can hoot out the moment the cord is struck on the piano, and the cord is struck in our spirit, well, that's not failure! 
One snowy afternoon in deep winter John Pierpont  penned the work as a small gift to his family and friends and congregation, and in doing so, he left a permanent gift for Christmas, the best kind, not the one under the tree, but the invisible, invincible one of Joy!

So, if you're feeling a failure for any reason this beautiful and demanding Holiday Season, take care to separate failing at a task from being a failure. Then remember the story of John Pierpont, recognize your capacity to change and grow through experience, forgive yourself and begin again. There are always ways to redeem our failures especially through learning from them and doing things differently another time.

A very Happy Christmas to you all!