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Self-Destruction: The Love of Comfort and Fear of Failure


"Technology and comfort - having those, people speak of culture but do not have it."

~Thomas Mann~

From the often unbearable climate of social media, to the civil war of political discussion, to the numbing values of the entertainment industry, the modern emphasis on human comfort is undeniable in our culture. The western world is spoon-feeding the monster that is our desire for unchallenged validation, condemning anything that defies our comfort as unacceptable and immoral. The danger of this mentality is detrimental to the growth of society.

What standard are we really living up to? Are the standards of our social justice convictions justified simply because we feel like they should be? Are the standards of our political opinions justified because that's what feels right to us? Because we've assessed the alternatives and have decided for ourselves that they’re comfortable? I have to tell you, friends, comfort is the start of compromise, and when we idolize our broken consolations, the only thing we’re doing is reinforcing our brokenness. In doing this, we give up our quest to become better and to make progress in anything.

If our own choices dictate what is acceptable, rather than what is acceptable dictating our choices, we fall tragically into the trap of subjectivism. This says that what is right is determined not by the object (a law or a value), but by the subject. In other words, we all choose what we think is right for ourselves and are justified in our actions as long as they align with our subjective moral values. The problem with this is that if every person has their own standard for what is right, there can be no moral progress in any communal institution – education, church, government, and society.

Why? Because progress is linear. It’s defined as the act of moving forward. Progress is directional. To make progress means to move either toward something or away from something. That requires an objective, unmoving standard to advance toward. Imagine a race where finish lines were placed based on each runner’s preference. The sport would no longer be meaningful. We take pride in knowing that we made progress within the boundaries set before us, not in setting those boundaries ourselves. Progress is an increased alignment with a standard. If standards vary from person to person, then we condemn ourselves as a whole to a pit of undefined goals, resulting in chaotic disunity and utter meaninglessness.

I believe this shift toward subjectivity is rooted in the emphasis on comfort, as explained above, and subsequently in the fear of failure. As a teacher, it’s no longer acceptable to fail a student in class. As an employer, it’s no longer acceptable to give an employee a poor performance review. As a pastor, it’s no longer acceptable to call out sinful behavior, even in love, because it imparts a feeling of failure. Our fear of failure grows parallel to our increasing value of comfort, and the results are devastating on an individual and communal level.

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

~Theodore Roosevelt~

By eliminating failure, we eliminate the drive to succeed and settle for mediocrity. Failure teaches us resilience, the ability to get back up and go at it harder. If our mediocrity is acceptable, why work harder? We are creatures of gratification. If we receive gratification at lower standards, it is not in our human nature to perform at higher standards. Once we are fulfilled and satisfied by whatever reward we’re working toward, be it a paycheck, a trophy, recognition, or a degree, we stop working. The importance of failure along the way is the ability to stretch our capacities and reach higher standards - progress.

What does this mean for our culture?

First, our fear of failure results in softened institutional standards, which can corrupt the inherent meaning of church and government. Religion is essentially a set of beliefs that inevitably manifest in standards that dictate a way of living righteously in the world. Of course, there is more to faith than rules, but these standards are sprung from devotion and belief rooted in experience. With no failure, we undermine the idea that humans are imperfect and need to better ourselves. We undermine the idea that experiences are our greatest teachers. Perhaps most importantly, when nothing is considered "failure" in the church, we lose sight of God's inability to fail, and our desperate need of Him.

Similarly, our government is in place to maintain order and peace. However, order also requires standards. Protection of individual rights requires standards. When we do not allow failure to be acknowledged, we compromise order and individual rights. When we do not allow failure, we rob government of the ability to perform its main function.

Second, our fear of failure directly results in a decline in quality in education. If we don’t develop that resilience to spring back from failure early on in life, we won’t make it through a college degree. The decrease in resilience to failure has led to an increase in educational mediocrity. Curriculum is watered down to implement feelings of success. What most people don’t acknowledge is that while success is an encourager toward the finish line, failure is a motivator. The difference between encouragement and motivation is the ability to act out of self-sufficiency. Encourage a child to try again and they’ll have enough power to get through that moment so long as you are there to encourage them. As the outside force, you fuel the progress. Motivate a child to try again and they will learn to stand on their own feet and make it happen themselves. They will fuel the process. While encouragement is a wonderful tool, motivation comes from within and is therefore sustaining.

Our fear of failure also results in a decline in value of education. If education is made simple enough so that it’s impossible to fail, then logically, anyone can earn any degree they want. While this seems empowering, it’s actually harmful to society. Would we rather live in a culture that allows any person with a desire to be a doctor to operate on our loved ones? Or would be rather live in a culture that tests the limits of medical students and fails them until procedures are perfected to ensure that they operate out of deep knowledge and skill instead of casual interest? The truth is that people have unique strengths that can be carried farther than their neighbor’s. A thriving society is one that sets the standards high so that those strengths can be developed and utilized. This ensures that those who work and perfect with difficulty and fortitude are equipped to maintain universal excellence. A variety of hard-earned, failure-edified specialties are worth the temporary discomfort in the long run.

Finally, our fear of failure results in a decline in work quality and an increase in “noise” in the workforce. When we succumb to the desire for comfort and the fear of failure, we relinquish our sense of direction as both leaders and aspiring professionals. The workforce becomes a beehive of employers balancing the salary demands of "credentialed" employees and the unmet practical demands of the work. Similarly to the quality of education, the quality of our work declines because we aren’t true specialists. We’re specialists by documentation or by title, but we haven’t baptized our work in the rich waters of failure enough to establish true awareness of what being a specialist means in our field. What does that mean for the work force? It’s noisy. Instead of quality work, we get quantity work. The work often fails to make a true impact because again, the standards are not high enough, feeding back into the vicious cycle.

So what do we do? First, we have to yield to the fact that failure and objective standards are uncomfortable. We have to reprogram our minds to accept them and not deflect them. We have to posture ourselves in submission to objective values, allowing them to inform our actions and our opinions. We have to embrace failure and allow it to humble us and motivate our standards. Once we can live in civility with our failure and discomfort, we can start to make progress.

Second, we have to find motivation within ourselves to set standards higher than our reach. We have to break the habit of reaching gratification and then growing stagnant. It's not comfortable to push our limits, but the goal of progress isn't to find what's comfortable, but to reach beyond what we are currently capable of. Just like when lifting weights, that one extra rep is the only way to results. No one can motivate us to improve and reach beyond our capacity except ourselves.

And last, we have to look beyond the moment. Feelings are bound by moments, but truth lives in the eternal. Don't seek what feels good, seek what is good. Only then will our momentary decisions line up with the ultimate picture of goodness.

St. Louis, MO, USA

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