Handling episodes of failure

Any real-world system will fail occasionally. A robust (resilient, sustainable, etc.) system must not only avoid failure as much as possible; the system must also handle whatever failures do happen. This post is about handling those failures.

A failure might be more than a single event. There might be a losing of one’s balance, then a period of being out of balance, then balance being restored. By an “episode” of failure, I mean this whole process, with three phases:

  • falling in the hole
  • being in the hole
  • climbing out of the hole

The whole episode might be over in minutes, perhaps it might be hours, or even days, or longer, …

n.b.: examples in this post will be from temper loss or cigarettes (I used to smoke, from early 80s to late 90s). The actual failures I am dealing with are to do with using pornography.

Falling in

At the time the fall might be too sudden to notice until after it’s happened. Looking back, the fall can be seen as a drawn out slide. The first thing then is to learn to recognise what is happening as it happens.

I should recognise what is happening. I shouldn’t kid myself on that something else is going on. If I am gradually losing my temper, I should recognise that and acknowledge it. I shouldn’t allow myself to make up some story to explain away what I’m doing.

I should try to identify what has pushed me on to this slope. It might be tiredness or boredom or enfored tedium at work; it might be a verbal battering from my wife; the ensuing feeling of a lack of agency; it might be something more idiosyncratic or even random.

Once I have recognised that I am on the slippery slope, I should fight back. There is no need to lose my balance completely over every nudge. Throw in diversions: go and eat an apple; physically remove myself from the situation: go into another room, go for a walk; find and do a small well defined task: wash the dishes, reply to an email. The smartphone or tablet is an easy portal into sin – oil for the slippery slope — make sure it is parked on the other side of the room. Always resist.

I can resist, I can fight back, and I might be able to claw my way out without falling all the way in.

However, sometimes, at some point, there will come a time when it is better to concede defeat rather than to battle on. Two examples from giving up smoking:

  • desperate for a fag I am raging about in a foul mood and can think of little else but whether or not I should have a cigarette. This is helping nobody. I should have a smoke, clear my head and improve my mood. The thing here will be to have a consciously “remedial” smoke, recognise that as “completion” (see below), and to climb back out of the hole asap.
  • nights out on the town were always the hardest for giving-up smokers. One thing I (and some others) did, was to have a cigarette late afternoon before going out. This would stop cravings, and strengthen will-power during the night out. A stitch in time saves nine.

All through the resistance I should draw strength from having Jesus by my side, turn to scripture and Christian, encouraging texts, be open to the Spirit moving within me to lift me out.

However, once I have conceded defeat and realised/decided that I am falling in the hole, I should not leave Jesus behind. I would fall in and be away from “all that” and not want to go back. I should grab hold of Him and drag Him in with me.

This idea has only just occurred to me and I don’t quite know what it means. I should remember that my sins are forgiven — not at some time afterwards, but forgiven already. Even while I sin I am forgiven already and being forgiven. I should remember that, not as a licence to sin, but as a way of infecting or contaminating the sin, and my urge to sin, with God’s grace. Practically, that might put me off the sinning, or it might lift me out of it sooner rather than later.

Dragging Jesus down into my own little hell sounds desperate, yucky and upsetting for me, and even evil, but there it is. It’s an idea.

Being in

Once in the hole I wallow there, indulging and nurturing my bad mood (replace with sinful behaviour of choice). I have turned away and separated myself from Jesus and I don’t want to turn back.

Why do I do that? I feel as if turning back would be a defeat. Really it would be a victory.

Once I have fallen in the hole I should recognise — admit explicitly to myself — what has happened. I should recognise it as a defeat. If I didn’t manage to drag Jesus down with me I should call on Him now — either to lift me out or to just be with me in this little hell.

I should not fear judgement, and I should not judge myself.

I should not dig myself deeper into the hole. As soon as I realise I am in there I should start climbing out.

Climbing out

An episode can have a false finish — I think I am out but I quickly fall back in — so climbing out means *really* climbing out.

I sometimes think: something caused me to fall in the hole; some “issue” must be “resolved” before I can climb out properly. But often, e.g. if I am nursing a bad temper, something quite random and irrelevant will lift my mood away; sometimes I can lift myself out by reasoning or by dwelling on something else. Perhaps thinking I have to stay in the hole until I can “resolve” something is a trickery to keep me in there.

I *can* just decide to climb out. I *can* decide to stay out.

One easy opportunity to climb out is at the end of the day. Unfortunately, for me, these episodes can last several days. That means at some point in the morning, I decide to continue my sinful behaviour.

I should overcome my reluctance to turn to Jesus while I am in the hole. I think my desire to stay in the hole is some kind of generalised resentment. If I can convince myself that, even in the middle of it all, Jesus can be there for me — he didn’t cast a stone either, after all the others had gone — it will be easier to pray in the evening, and hand everything over to God, and in the morning to take pleasure in being out of the hole.

Once I am out of the hole, I should recognise the end of the episode — I should assert it, draw a line under it. At the first opportunity I should reflect on the episode as a complete thing: with a beginning, a middle and an end. I should pray in explicit detail for forgiveness (C. S. Lewis makes that point in Mere Christianity), and give thanks that I am out.

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  1. Very interesting and great insights, David! I just got back the old copy of Mere Christianity that my son, Graham, took to read years ago (and obviously, kept! ha!). I’m going to reread it and remind myself of Lewis’ wise words after a 30 year gap since I read it last. I hope to read more about how his words and your Bible studies/prayer times are impacting you for the better in all areas of your life. And I will continue to pray that this temptation loses its grip on you in time. As you fight it back with Christ’s strength, I believe it will. Happy New Year! I hope it will be your best year yet, sweet friend!

    • Dear Beth, thank you for your comments. I am looking forward to turning over a new leaf next year … in less than an hour’s time! I will post some notes on Mere Christianity in Jan.

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