Re-framing Failure by Isabelle Jenkins

What a gift it is to be able to reflect on my year of service with the Life Together program. I have so many fond memories of 40P, my work at Church of the Good Shepherd, and exploring Boston with my housemates and the other fellows in the program. From community meals, to game nights, to “garden parties,” to standing room only tickets at Fenway, to learning about community gardens, to my first preaching experience, Life Together really was a formative experience in my young adult life. To say that it helped me get to where I am today would be an understatement. In fact, Life Together, the memories I have from my time with the program, and the deep learning that occurred in community, might just be the cement column deep in the ground holding up the foundation on which I now stand.

It might be odd to say this, but, I think, my biggest learning from my time as a fellow in Life Together was the importance of failure and the absolute necessity of re-framing the concept of failure. I worked as a community organizer with the Church of the Good Shepherd in Watertown. My role was to bring the church to the community and address an issue of social justice. And that was pretty much it. So vague, so large, so unknown. For the first few months I hit wall after wall after wall. I tried to gather people for meetings, but failed at that. I tried to have ten one on ones per week, but failed at that. I tried to propose ideas of what I thought would be a good social justice project for the community, but failed at that too. During this time, I had a community organizing coach, Josh. We would meet weekly, and each week I would tell him about everything that I had failed at that week, and I would cry because I thought I wasn’t getting anywhere. Finally, one week, he said something along the lines of, “Isabelle, you need to stop crying about your failure. You should feel proud of it! You are learning so much and that is because you are, as you say, failing.” I’m sure I had heard several times before then about the need to re-frame failure, but that moment with Josh, I think, was the first time I truly heard it. Seeing failure as success, as something to build on, not as a roadblock, opened up so many opportunities for me and, eventually, led me to the community gardening project that I was able to complete with the people of Watertown and CGS.

When I think back to that moment with Josh and why I was able to truly hear his advice that day, I am completely positive that I could hear his feedback because of the environment that Life Together cultivated for me as a person and the security I felt about being a part of the Life Together community. My intentional community and the Friday trainings created a space for me to learn and to grow, and it was in this space that my ears, and my heart, could listen.

These two learnings, the importance of community and the necessity of re-framing failure, I turn to again and again in my current work with college students at The College of the Holy Cross. Often, I find myself in a mentorship role, counseling students on vocational discernment, social and academic challenges, and a myriad of other things. As a mentor, the first thing I try to do is create a space where my students feel welcome, where they feel like they can bring their full selves, and where they feel valued. The second thing I do is congratulate them on their failures. The image I particularly like to use is one of Leonard Cohen’s in his song “Anthem.” He writes: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Failure most certainly creates cracks, as do so many of the challenges we face, but these cracks can become openings, spaces where light can shine in and reveal to us something about ourselves, about our communities, that we weren’t aware of previously.

Life Together and the challenges I faced there in my community engagement work and in my intentional community most certainly created some cracks in me, in my heart. But, through those cracks, light came pouring in, light from my Life Together mentors, my housemates, and the justice work Life Together taught and encouraged me to do.