A blog for Catholic men that seeks to encourage virtue, the pursuit of holiness and the art of true masculinity.
Fail Forward: 7 Blessings of Falls in the Lives of Men
September 15, 2020
We are living in a time when men are besieged from all fronts. Men have a suicide rate three times higher than women which many attribute, at least in part, to men equating asking for help with portraying vulnerability in a society where vulnerability is equated with weakness and not being a real man.
As followers of Christ, we have the greatest contradiction to this world and society’s stereotypes regarding manhood and falling in Our Lord himself. Who has ever been more the epitome of manhood than Our Lord? That being said, who has ever been more subjected to unfairness, the petty baggage of others, frustrations and stress, and all sorts of setbacks and struggles than this most masculine of men? Christ is both human and divine. He experienced discomforts, setbacks, frustrations, sadness, criticism, and everything we can define as falls.
I define falls beyond the obvious and mundane physical falls we experience daily on slippery roads, ice skating rinks, dark passages, and sports fields. The falls that really matter to our eternity go way beyond unseen obstacles we trip over. Such falls occur in our families, jobs, careers, finances, health, relationships, marriages, businesses, moral and prayer lives, and every situation we find ourselves.
This society has taught, or perhaps more accurately, brainwashed, us into seeing such falls as mistakes, failures, signs of weakness, shameful misfortunes to ignore or hide precisely because it equates falls with vulnerability and imperfection. Once we see our falls this way, it is natural that we would spend most of our time and efforts fearing and avoiding falls rather than accepting, preparing, and transcending them as God wants us to do.
The implications of all of this for the Catholic man, and for the woman who loves him, is that we need to refocus our perception of falls into the context of God’s loving, merciful, and just embrace. What follows is an initial plan for doing just that.
Falls Happen but Fear Pervades and Persists
Have you ever fallen suddenly without warning? Perhaps you were running or walking somewhere, and you slipped on something and found yourself on the ground in an instant. Maybe you were rejected for something without having a clue that rejection was possible. In such cases, the fall happens with no real anticipation or, perhaps, any real preparation. The setback or misfortune strikes like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. Many people dislike such falls because of their suddenness. However, the hidden blessing of such falls is that they do not allow fear to set in before the fall. By the time one finds oneself down, there is little point in dwelling on how and why one fell. The focus is more on how one may get back up.
By contrast, knowing, anticipating, obsessing over an expected fall is sheer torture. One worries and stresses over the expected pain of that approaching fall, effectively extending its discomfort and pain before the fall even happens. I knew someone who expected his business to fail for months. I also knew a woman who anguished seeing her marriage fall apart for years. We all remember waiting for our parents to see a bad grade on a test or report card. The anticipation or expectation of the bad that was coming made things far worse. Who better than our Blessed Lord, in Gethsemane, for understanding the sheer anguish and torment of seeing a fall approaching? While our falls pale in comparison to the suffering that approached Christ, consider that our Divine Master experienced this anticipated torment for us.
Our society is so obsessed with seeing falls as tragic disasters that we end up spending most of our time doing everything in our power to avoid falls at all. Sure, we should plan and do our best to avoid falls. However, there is a big difference between rational, sensible avoidance or preparation and mindless worry and stress over some expected fall. This is not to diminish or belittle falls. It is to place such falls in the context of our faith in God and trust in Christ’s guidance. Once we do this, we can slowly come to see falls as blessings. Yes, that is right, blessings from God listed below.
Falls as Blessings
Our Lord instructed us that “Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps.” ( Luke 9:23) Proverbs 24:16 tells us that “Though the just fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble from only one mishap.” Note that neither Our Lord nor scripture promises us that we will not fall. Falls are part of life as imperfect human beings in a very imperfect world. While we should certainly do our best to avoid falls, we must not obsess with avoiding them to the point that we lose our way toward God. The devil wants us to despair and lose hope, but the secret to salvation is to do precisely the opposite of what the devil wants us to do. In this case, that would mean precisely doing what Christ tells and shows us to do, which is to turn any fall into an opportunity to serve and praise God. When we see falls as blessings, we turn the tables on the devil, and clear our path to greater holiness and ultimate salvation! So, let us consider the seven blessings of falls, and appreciate those blessings as gifts and opportunities to be ever closer to God as men and women of God.
The Seven Blessings of Falls
1. Embracing Humility – St. Francis de Sales and St Vincent de Paul both called humility the greatest weapon against the devil, who is anything but humble. Padre Pio and St. Faustina both reminded us that a humble soul is more prone to put its trust in God. Our Lord and Our Blessed Mother are wonderful models of humility that we may, however imperfectly, do our best to emulate. Humility is not placing ourselves above others or desiring to be the center of attentions but, instead living to serve God and others before ourselves. The earthly despise falls because they remind us of our imperfection while the earth wants to intoxicate us with its false promises of perfection, popularity, success, and invulnerability which our falls roundly contradict. This world sees falls as failures and mistakes and invites us to ignore, hide, and flee from them lest we find the reproach of men as Christ did. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton said that the gate of Heaven is very low such that only the humble can enter it. Falling is a wonderful opportunity to be closer to God because it is beautiful chance to encounter Christ on the way to the cross.
Society sells the stereotype of the successful male as confident bordering on arrogant. We are told that people gravitate toward winners, not that winners gravitate toward humility. In fact, we are so impressed by the humble winner precisely because we see humility as frosting on the virtue cake. Not only is he a winner but, get this, he is humble! If we embraced and portrayed humility more consistently and fully, being humble would be as normal as breathing. As imitators of Chrit, Catholic men have the wonderful opportunity to be humility agents, presenting and spreading the value of humility in all we do.
One possible reason why humility is so often seen as un-manly is the common confusion between humility and humiliation. Humiliation is feeling treated below the level one expects to be treated. Two simple examples will illustrate this point. If we treat the head of a major corporation and a homeless man as homeless men, which one would be more offended, and feel more humiliated? If we declare that a famous chef and man just learning to cook have not cooked a meal well, which one will feel more humiliated? Surely, the corporate head that the chef in both cases will feel more humiliated because both men expect to be treated far better than that were in those cases. Certainly, the homeless man expects more to be treated like a homeless man and the new cook expects more to have his cooking criticized. In both cases, the person with lofty expectations was humiliated when treated below that high view of himself. Conversely the one with low expectations felt much less humiliated or not humiliated at all because he did not cling to such a lofty view of himself. My point is that being humble will actually cause us to feel humiliated much less! If we do not think so highly of ourselves and if we are not so obsessed with how we look to others, we will rarely, if ever, experience humiliation.
2. Opportunity to Ground Oneself – Being grounded means knowing ourselves and our purpose. Implied in this, of course, is knowing what one is not and does not want to become. Being on the ground is literally the greatest opportunity to become grounded. When finding rock bottom, we have the opportunity to reassess and evaluate how we got there and where we want to go from there. St Catherine of Siena stated “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!” Falling provides us with the perfect environment to repent, reconsider, and redeem ourselves.
As Catholic men, we can and should ground ourselves in Jesus Christ. This will tell us what we are, what we should aspire to be, and what we clearly do not want to become. We will shun anything that pulls us farther from Our Lord, and embrace anything that moves us closer to Christ. We will uphold what represents Christ to us and reject that which contradicts Christ to us. We will care more what God thinks of us and much less, if at all, what others think of us. As Catholic men, we will be well served to root ourselves in Christ and grow a rich harvest of blessings and actions in the eyes of God.
3. Learn to Overcome Barriers – The only way to learn how to overcome setbacks is to have setbacks and overcome them. When we have hurdles before us, we are forced to decide if they are worth overcoming and, if they are, then we are forced to design and devise ways of getting around or getting over those hurdles. As Catholic men and men in general, we all face obstacles daily to our manhood, faith, values, aspirations, and plans. Only by digging into the trenches of those front lines between our Faith and this world will we learn how to grapple and cope with the hurdles we will face along the way.
4. Learn to Take Good Risks – There are good risks and foolish risks. Good risks expose us to further setbacks in the pursuit of much greater gains with a reasonable chance of being successfully navigated. Foolish risks expose us to setbacks greater than the gains we hope to accomplish and have a poor chance of being successfully handled. Just as in learning to overcome barriers, we only learn to take better risks by taking risks and learning from the consequences. Ultimately, the issue of fear arises here. Someone once said that courage is fear that has said its prayers. St Frances de Sales is quoted as stating that “Anxiety is the greatest evil that can befall a soul except sin. God commands you to pray, but He forbids you to worry.” Fear and worry come from either not having enough faith and abandonment to God’s providence or placing too much faith in one’s own chances of success. Pope Benedict XVI once stated “ The world offers you comfort but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” The implication of Benedict’s words is that fulfilling the greatness God intends for us implies having the courage to contradict this world’s narratives in our lives and living by the narrative of heaven. It was St. John Vianney who stated “The saints did not all begin well, but they ended well.” At the end of the day, we can find solace in the words of G.K. Chesterton, who once suggested that “Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” Through our falls, God challenges us to contradict this world’s script that falling is failing.
This world’s stereotype of men as adventurous gamblers willing and able to bet on themselves poses an intriguing and perhaps even romantic image, but it is not the image of Christ that Catholic men should aspire to. As Catholic men grounded in Christ, we must place our chips in Our Lord and whatever helps us to better serve God and others for the glory of The Almighty. We must not place our lot in earthly perceptions of success or greatness but, rather, in centering our lives and our responsibilities as husbands and fathers in the Word of God and the example of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, and the saints. What better example can there be, for example, than St. Joseph, for husbands and fathers today? If we place our faith and trust in God, and strive to follow the teaching and example of Christ, we will not speculate or gamble what we should value the most, which is our relationship and dedication to serve and obey God’s Will and purpose for our lives. Any earthly risk taken in faith and trust in God in the service of eternal salvation for ourselves and others is a good risk for the Catholic man. Conversely, any risk of our eternal salvation taken for mere earthly reward is the personification of a foolish risk for any Catholic under any circumstances. Simply put, a good risk brings us closer to God and a foolish risk pulls us further from Him.
5. Learn from Mistakes – St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was no stranger to setbacks and mistakes, but she observed that “pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus- a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.” St. Rose of Lima once stated that “Without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. The gift of grace increases as the struggle increases.” When we see our struggles as opportunities to grow closer to God, and our setbacks as graces and blessings to follow in the steps of Our Lord, we free ourselves to focus on learning from those setbacks and struggles instead of complaining or becoming bitter about them.
This is where we, as Catholic men, need to adjust our mindset, goals, and corresponding terminology. This society defines failure as not achieving some goal which often, is an earthly, mundane, secular goal such as a better job, grade, paycheck, status, house, car, or wardrobe. Perhaps that goal is to be admired or to attract a mate. So, we may focus on a superficial, temporary or, at best, acceptable earthly goal then call ourselves failures if we do not reach that goal. We define a mistake as messing up something to the point that we wish we had a chance to do things differently all over again. We see losing as failing some contest or challenge and call the one who loses a loser. No man wants to be called or considered a failure, a loser, an expert in making mistakes. We have such an aversion to such labels that we will do everything in our power to avoid admitting, much less making, mistakes. We admire those who proclaim that failure is not an option.
Instead of relishing life and the blessings that God has given us, we tend to obsess over the things that have not gone our way, the stumbles that we allow to glow like announcements that we have somehow fallen short of our, or society’s, ideal of what a man should be or should represent. Instead of playing this counterproductive and destructive blame and shame game, why don’t we, as Catholic men, refocus and adjust our thinking and terminology? I suggest that we define failure as failing to learn from our setbacks, to learn how to grow closer to God from our struggles, and to discover how to love and serve God and others despite and beyond our difficulties. Let us violate the selfish norms and values of this society and define failure as worrying so much about ourselves that we forget to consider God and others in the process. Similarly, let us view mistakes as symptoms of human imperfection poised to be opportunities to grow closer to God. We all make mistakes, but it is what we do with those mistakes that defines who we really are and want to become. If we belong to God and want to use the gifts He has given us to serve His purpose for our lives, our mistakes are merely opportunities to readjust toward those ultimately good goals. Bitterness, anger, resentment, jealousy, envy, and wrapping ourselves in the cloak of martyrdom for attention are not only useless but, worse, destructive to our quest to be the men God wants us to be.
Do not fear mistakes; do not cower from the specter of failure. Instead, determine that you want to become the man God wants you to be, and strive to achieve that purpose and mission despite, through, beyond and, yes, even because of those mistakes and failures in the eyes of a world that increasingly has no clue what God is about, much less how one goes about serving Him. See your so-called mistakes and failures as blessings and graces from God guiding you to fulfill the investment He made in you when He created you!
6. Keep Your Eyes on God – Once we see our struggles as graces, it becomes ever easier to see God’s glory in our deepest wounds, as St. Augustine of Hippo once proclaimed. St. Jane Frances de Chantal is quoted as advising “Hold your eyes on God and leave the doing to Him. That is all the doing you have to worry about.” Those who humbly place their fate and faith in God find great peace in knowing that God is in charge. In the words of St. Theresa of Avila and St Augustine of Hippo, God alone suffices to quiet our restlessness once we rest our gaze in Him. St Frances de Sales adds that “Faith is like a bright ray of sunlight. It enables us to see God in all things as well as all things in God.” It is said that we tend to go where our eyes point, so keeping our focus on God and His Will tends to pull us in that direction. It was the Venerable Fulton Sheen who suggested “You will never be happy if your happiness depends on getting solely what you want. Change the focus. Get a new center. Will what God wills, and your joy no man shall take from you. These words echo the notion that keeping our eyes on God shakes off this world’s selfish and distorted idea that happiness is serving our taste alone. Ultimately, our unhappiness may come more from the way we see our lot than our lot itself. Once we lay everything at the feet of Our Lord, falls merely become roses in the bouquet of struggles God offers us in our efforts to imitate Christ. In a sense, unhappiness, discontent, and terror in the face of falls is the result of blindness to God and what God wants us to be.
As Catholic men facing an increasingly distracting and distorted world, we may often lose sight of God or what God wants us to be. We may fall prey to the lures and temptations of this petty, superficial, and lying world which offers us so much that means so little in the greater scheme of things. How little of what people obsess over during their lives reaches their death bed! It is only then, for many, that one realizes the precious opportunities and chances lost to grow an eternal crop of good works because we were preoccupied with the weeds this world offers as flowers. In all our efforts, and in all our thoughts, let us keep our gaze upon the most loving and merciful God Who deserves our attention, retention, and thanks in all we do.
7. Reach out to the Fallen – St. Rose of Lima advised that we should “Know that the greatest service that man can offer to God is to help convert souls.” Like the Good Samaritan, we are each called to find compassion and reach out for the fallen among us. It is not enough to help those we happen upon but, in the image of Christ, to seek the fallen out. How much more compassion can we gain for the fallen when we ourselves have fallen as much or more? Look at your falls as testing grounds where you will taste sorrow and frustration so that you can more fully get a dash of what your Lord suffered for you and what you can therefore suffer for others as well. This world teaches selfishness and self-benefit, but the path to salvation is lined with unselfish service.
Catholic men can do well to turn their bitter struggles and sufferings into the ingredients of a deeper compassion and consideration for the struggles and sufferings of others. Not only will such a practice encourage us to place God and others above ourselves as humility dictates but, just as importantly, it will invite us to use our God-given gifts in the service of God and others.
As Catholic men we face a fork in the road to our salvation and that of those we love. On one hand, we see the distorted values and aspirations of a society and world which increasingly ignores or rejects God. On the other hand, we see the example of Our Lord, His Blessed Mother, and the saints on how to love, serve, and obey God and serve others. Unless we remain strong in our faith and dedicated to our responsibility as Catholic men, we can easily lose ourselves and those we love in the distractions, lies, and myths of this society and world. One of those distortions is how we define the falls in our lives. This world tells us that falls are failures and mistakes to be ashamed of, to ignore, or to hide. Armed with the example of Christ, His Blessed Mother, and the saints, we should know that falls and setbacks are blessed opportunities to contradict the devil’s invitation to feel hopeless, powerless, bitter, and resentful toward a God Who deserves all of our love, respect, gratitude, obedience, and efforts.
We fancy ourselves followers of Christ, yet we fear and resent any possibility of following Our Lord through our own Via Dolorosa. We thank Christ for carrying the cross of our redemption, yet we reject or gripe about whatever crosses God may wish to place in our path. What, then, is the sacred secret to serving God and frustrating the devil while finding and fulfilling God’s purpose and mission for our lives as Catholic men in this twisted world? It is simply turning the devil’s tools of torture into God’s ladder of salvation. Once we see our struggles, setbacks, frustrations, and sufferings as golden steps to eternal salvation, the key to fulfilling our purpose and mission as Catholic men in this world will become clear before us.
Locus of control is a common psychological term for where we see the control in our lives. Those with an external locus of control see themselves influenced by outside forces. Those with an internal locus of control see themselves as in control of their own lives. This world presents an internal locus of control as the ideal sign of a successful and happy person and an external locus as the excuse of a hypnotized loser. This society’s values invite us to be terrified about our future because we are obsessed with our past. The peace of trusting our wonderful God lies in placing our internal and external locus of control in the Hands of The Almighty and focusing on serving God and others in the present. That is the path to holiness and fulfilling our eternal destiny and purpose in the eyes of God. One of the best ways to find that peace and purpose and survive this world and society as Catholic men is to see our falls as blessings. See each of the falls in your life as the seven blessings above, and become the man God wants you to be.
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