What C.S. Lewis can teach us about failure

Posted by Craig Borlase on 30 November 2015

We are, as the wonderful Mike Yaconelli observed, all accustomed to messing things up. We are all fail-ers. It is the choices we make when we’re knocked down that so often dictate what follows.

Despite his success, work-rate and seemingly endless source of spiritual insight, C.S. Lewis was no stranger to failure. He had to endure a twenty year wait between publishing his first book and publishing his first successful book - during which time he abandoned the idea of being an author. He failed part of his Oxford entrance exam and even as a graduate it took years for him to finally land a position as a professor.

So when Lewis heard that his godson, Lawrence Harwood failed some important university exams and was feeling well and truly crushed, his advice was genuine and heart-felt.

He warns against despair, resentment and hopelessness. For any of us dealing with disappointment today, his words are bang on.

Aug 2nd 1955
My dear Lawrence,
I was sorry to hear from Owen Barfield that you have taken a nasty knock over History Prelim [exams]. Sorry, because I know it can’t be much fun for you: not because I think the thing is necessarily a major disaster. We are now so used to the examination system that we hardly remember how very recent it is and how hotly it was opposed by some quite sincere people. Trollope (no fool) was utterly sceptical about its value: and I myself, tho’ a don, sometimes wonder how many of the useful, or even the great, men of the past would have survived it. It doesn’t test all qualities by any means: not even all qualities needed in an academic life. And anyway, what a small part of life that is. And if you are not suited for that, it is well to have been pushed forcibly out of it at an earlier rather than a later stage. It is much worse to waste three or more years getting a Fourth or a Pass. You can now cut your losses and start on something else.

At the moment, I can well imagine, everything seems in ruins. That is an illusion. The world is full of capable and useful people who began life by ploughing in exams. You will laugh at this contre temps [bad time] some day. Of course it would be disastrous to go to the other extreme and conclude that one was a genius because one had failed in a prelim–as if a horse imagined it must be a Derby winner because it couldn’t be taught to pull a four-wheeler! – but I don’t expect that is the extreme to which you are temperamentally inclined.

Are you in any danger of seeking consolation in Resentment? I have no reason to suppose you are, but it is a favourite desire of the human mind (certainly of my mind!) and one wants to be on one’s guard against it. And that is about the only way in which an early failure like this can become a real permanent injury. A belief that one has been misused, a tendency ever after to snap and snarl at ‘the system’ – that, I think, makes a man always a bore, usually an ass, sometimes a villain. So don’t think either that you are no good or that you are a Victim. Write the whole thing off and get on.
You may reply ‘It’s easy talking.’ I shan’t blame you if you do. I remember only too well what a hopeless oyster to be opened the world seemed at your age. I would have given a good deal to anyone who could have assured me that I ever would be able to persuade anyone to pay me a living wage for anything I could do. Life consisted of applying for jobs which other people got, writing books that no one would publish, and giving lectures which no one attended.

It all looks perfectly hopeless. Yet the vast majority of us manage to get in somewhere and shake down somehow in the end.

You are now going through what most people (at any rate most of the people I know) find in retrospect to have been the most unpleasant period of their lives. But it won’t last: the road usually improves later. I think life is rather like a lumpy bed in a bad hotel. At first you can’t imagine how you can lie on it, much less sleep in it. But presently one finds the right position and finally one is snoring away. By the time one is called it seems a very good bed and one is loathed to leave it.

This is a devilish stodgy letter. There’s no need to bother answering it. I go to Ireland on the 11th. Give my love to all & thank Sylvia for my bathing suit.
C.S. Lewis

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