Failure and the Willingness to Try

In a short story called “That Ain’t Jazz,” David Bradley writes about the struggles of a musician:

For I too have played this music—notes of failure, retreat, defeat. I too have spent long hours rephrasing phrases that I never got quite right. What I should have said, at dinner, was, I’ve been in the woodshed, working on my chops . . . and tomorrow I will be there again, so one day I may better join the elemental verbs, and better set the noun and dash of consciousness together to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose.

Tonight I watch and listen as this blond trumpeter, heedless of height and sloshing drinks, climbs onto the table, shifts to low range and a minor key, and against the bouncing bebop background plays . . . a melody. He’s not really sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet and he lets it soar in a belling of long-held notes, simple, slow.

The audience is consternated; there’s no place to snap or nod. “Aw, that ain’t jazz,” somebody says. Maybe not. But some fool on a shaky table is trying to make something come round right. And I dig it. And I’m with it. And with me.

For Bradley, music isn’t about the success of being popular, of having every listener enjoy or understand his music. He isn’t interested in the easy and already established way, the wide road of simple, natural rhythms and melodies that the audience members have already ingrained and accepted into their musical lives. He strives instead for a new way, an original music that turns from society’s pre-conceptions about music and instead is driven by a different force.

C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters, a book describing a human’s struggle to live a life of faith, from the viewpoint of a demon who wants the human to fail. In this segment Screwtape, the senior demon, explains what God (the Enemy) wants from His creation:

. . . the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little over-riding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs–to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys (40).

Just as the best musicians risk failure in their efforts to get at what music is really about, God desires us to constantly struggle and strive to live a new way of life. He is more interested in our effort than our success. Human life is about building character, just as Bradley talks of constantly going back to his musical woodshed, never completely perfecting his musical ability but always trying. The attitude, the willingness to be constantly defeated and still try to live God’s way, is not only more important than success, but is the purpose to life, and the way our will is changed to His.

James 1:2-4 says,

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

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3 thoughts on “Failure and the Willingness to Try

  1. Too often Christians and non-Christians alike think of Christianity of a particular way of life where you give up certain things in this life in order to gain favour or reward in the next. This concept of “arriving” or getting to a point where it’s all finished, the war is won, and we can just relax and enjoy the moment. While I suspect that is largely hogwash, I do no fully understand the ultimate destination of where we are going, tho I do expect it will, again, be more about a journey than a destination. The glimpses of what the Father has planned for after Christ’s return that we get are very much process oriented, the thousand years, the New Jerusalem, etc, which imply civiliztion, work, activity, planning, and likely a lot of challenges and struggles, just without the obvious sins that plague and disable so much of our human potential.

    Any talented musician knows that the creation of one masterpiece is not enough to sustain a career, or a love more music, as the playing of that one piece will, in time, become nauseating to the listener. If it was not this way, then names like Serial Joe, Jimmy Ray, Wave, or Fastball, to name a few examples of one-hit wonders… would have a much bigger effect on people than it does. It’s much the same in any genre of music, that it’s all about the struggle and the creation and experimentation in music that makes it all worth while.

    To that end, even once a masterpiece like the New Jerusalem, with street paved with gold, is set in its glory and revealed to those who have laboured to see it, that will be a fleeting moment in time compared to the plan God has for that great city. This life is our training ground to enter that city, so I can not imagine that it will be a luxury vacation spa with all-inclusive services, but rather the perfect environment for service and agape. It will be a starting point and a launching pad to an entire universe wherein God’s way will flourish through the struggles, sacrifices, and work of those who are adopted into the family of God.

    If we are to become like Him, and He is a Master Builder, Creator, Giver, Long-Sufferer, etc, then I can expect that we will be doing nothing less than those things into eternity.

    This may not all be spot on correct… but thanks for getting my thinker thinking on a Monday 🙂

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