I stood among the cedars, overlooking a series of ridges that disappeared into a grassy plateau, which then ran on for a half mile and dropped sharply into the river. Having braved a mountaintop thunderstorm on a hellacious early morning trek into elk territory with my brother, we watched as a herd of elk, led by a burly six-point bull, came charging at us from four ridges over in response to a few excited cow calls. We’d already called in about eight or nine cows, plus a couple of senseless spikes, and were within arms reach of a massive herd bull.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. On only the second weekend of Colorado’s archery elk season, it looked like the victor’s wreath was about to be placed around my neck. Just at that moment, when herd and bull were charging hard at us, I saw a pair of public land hunters trying to cut the elk off before they reached us. The herd bull caught sight of the duo, then bailed hard in the opposite direction.
I looked at my brother and shook my head in disbelief. The rain picked up again, an ominous sign and symbol for the long, unforgiving season ahead. Just then, when all seemed lost, I caught sight of a five-point bull working the hillside just a short distance away. As soon as the cow call left my lips, that bull picked up his head and came trotting in our direction before disappearing into a cedar sea on his way to us.
Just when it seemed bleakest, our hope got new wings. Heart pounding, I soon caught a glimpse of the bull working up the slope, 30 yards and closing fast. As soon as he ducked behind a tree I grabbed my bow and ran to meet him on the opposite side of a patch of cedars. I came to full draw as his horns cleared the brush, 10 yards distant. One more step. I could envision the release, the lighted nock in flight, the perfect lung shot.
He never took that final step. He froze, picked up his head and made the fastest getaway I’ve ever seen a 1,000-pound animal make. Just where he’d been looking, the same two public land hunters stepped out. On fire with anger, I quickly came to a realization: I know both men well. We’ve hunted together. And twice this morning they’ve blown my hunt. They didn’t say a word, just took off.
Turn the page
I hunted hard the next three weeks of archery season, and then through a week of rifle season with my wife. Up at 4 a.m. to scout or hunt almost every day, crashed and in bed every night with barely enough energy to take off my shoes. Several business trips in between, exhaustion at every turn. And that doesn’t count the months before the season at the range with the bow, cutting arrows, gluing fletching, scouting, and getting gear put in order.
Emotionally it was by far and away the most draining season I’ve ever experienced. The greatest obstacle wasn’t ultimately the elk or the public land competition, either. It was dealing with the devastation of disappointment, one after the other, that continually tried to push me over the edge of sanity.
The tension came to a crescendo when, nearing the end of first rifle season, we got a flat tire on the side-by-side that erased a day of hunting. So repetitive were the blows that I realized something amidst my searing anger and curse words: Someone is orchestrating this; it cannot be accidental.
And then the words from Job I’d read that morning struck home: “Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?” (Job 12:9).
For the casual hunter, it makes no sense how close to the edge of mental breakdown some of us might come. For the person who’s laid it all on the line, eaten and slept hunting for months, it makes all the sense in the world. It’s why I can understand why NFL coaches lose it on the sidelines after a blown call or a turnover—you pour 100 hours a week for months at a time into something and then get punched in the stomach by failure. The casual football watchers stand amazed at such insanity; I simply feel the guy’s pain.
Here’s the reality: The sting of failure intensifies in proportion to the level of investment you make in any endeavor. Those who risk much will hurt much when, despite their best efforts, things blow up in their face. That’s the cost of doing battle.
those who risk much will hurt much when, despite their best efforts, things blow up in their face. That’s the cost of doing battle.
At many points during the season I felt like quitting, simply packing up my bow and calling it a year. In certain moments I could not deal with the emotional flood of despair that came with each new disappointment.
But I kept coming back to the same truth: Those who wager little stand to win nothing; those, however, who wager all stand to gain and lose great things. I’d rather go out swinging for the fences than playing it safe in the dugout. You win nothing from the bench. I can live with the pain of loss; I can’t live with the knowledge that I quit. The season was a success even without an animal—it was a success because I fought to the bitter end.
Along the way I picked up a few wise words. They’re getting me through a bleary-eyed sea of bitterness and beach heads laden with disappointment, and I think they apply to anyone going into the twelfth round with life and still getting their ass kicked. Here are a few signposts to regaining sanity in the face of failure.
failure isn’t the enemy, quitting is
First, As Teddy Roosevelt said, there’s no shame in defeat. There is shame in being the kind of person who criticizes others to feel better about himself but won’t enter the ring because he’s a coward and a loser. There’s shame in quitting and letting defeat paralyze you from future action; there’s shame in giving into fear; but there’s no shame in bravely standing in the ring, daring to swing away, and getting punched in the mouth.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” —Teddy Roosevelt
‘success’ is not righteousness
Second, when you’re faced with long seasons of continuous failure and setbacks and disappointments, you have to remember that success and failure are not reliable indicators of righteousness.
Just because you lost, got it handed to you, suffered devastatingly, came up short, or otherwise got your faced knocked in the dirt, doesn’t mean God is punishing you or withholding blessing because of a lack of character in you or favor from him. Likewise, success doesn’t mean you stand in God’s favor or are even necessarily a good person at all.
That’s where Job’s friends got it horrendously wrong—they attributed his hard circumstances to what they thought must have been his apparent wickedness. Sometimes we buy that lie because that’s also how we tend to think: Surely a man who loses his kids and possessions and health did something wrong.
And yet God tells us unmistakably that Job was a righteous man. God afflicted Job because he was righteous. Maybe God is doing the same in your life. There are reliable indicators of righteousness, but outward and apparent success—or failure—ain’t one of them.
On the flip side, just because you scored the elk of a lifetime or closed the sale or got the promotion or your kids turned out mildly alright doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person or God likes you more.
God often pours riches on those he intends to destroy and doles out affliction to his most prized servants—Abraham, Job and Jesus, to name a few of the most prominent in history. Those men had to wait a painfully long time to inherit the promised reward, too. Expect the long, hard road. Embrace it.
A line from the late Jerry Bridges helps put our failures in perspective: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”
Stop rubbing salt in your wounds
Third, the hardest part of your failure will likely be watching others succeed in exactly the way you can’t seem to win. For me, after getting shellacked for a month and a half during elk season, I had to stop looking at Instagram and Facebook. I couldn’t stand looking at other people’s dead animals, regardless of the fact that 90 percent of them were killed on private land through guided, paid-for hunts.
Part of the solution is being glad for your friends, even when you don’t feel like it. That takes grace. The other part is turning off the noise machine that helps you rub salt in your wounds at every turn. That, too, takes grace. Social media is a fantastic purveyor of the insidious notion that everyone else’s life is better than yours. Realistically, it’s not. It’s wise to limit your interaction with that mechanism of envy.
Be glad for your friends, but stop rubbing salt in your own wounds.
And if there are people in your life that enjoy rubbing salt in your wounds, they probably aren’t your friends, or at least aren’t the kind you need right then. Pray for them, but keep a healthy distance.
PULL OUT the silver linings playbook
Fourth, there’s a crap-ton to be grateful for, even when the fit hits the shan. Maybe that struck me hardest when I realized, near the end of the season, that all my family really wanted to do was enjoy each other’s company. My dad’s been through open heart surgery in recent years, so to even be with his boys and daughter-in-law is a trophy, a gift he didn’t deserve.
After the tears are shed, the initial sting of the punch wears off a little, and hugs are doled out generously to friends in the agony of defeat, there’s a place for thanksgiving. This is what helps us regain our perspective. Just start giving thanks to God for what’s right, because not everything in your life—no matter how bad it is—is wrong. There’s a reason supplication and thanksgiving bring about a harvest of peace (Philippians 4:6-7).
Ultimately, thanksgiving helps us see that a failure, while important, probably isn’t as big as it feels in that moment. I made too much of the hunt, which is evidenced by the fits of anger and hateful words I spewed when things went wrong.
(By the way, if you see how upset I am at a recent disappointment and you tell me, “Well, be thankful,” I will cut your heart out with a carving knife. Just kidding. Maybe. But seriously, don’t be that kind of insensitive jerk. Weep with those who weep—don’t tell those weeping to put on a smile and go clubbing. They might rightfully poke your eye out.)
Consider your loss or failure, whatever that is, in light of David’s all consuming passion: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4, emphasis mine).
As Paul said, we have to put this current difficulty into eternal perspective. When we do so, we’ll begin to see how small by comparison this moment really is. We can also know, even if it doesn’t seem clear now, that our present failure is actually doing work for us—it’s the necessary instrument by which we receive eternal glory and honor. We have to look beyond this present moment.
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
We’re on to New England
Fifth, don’t get stuck in the cesspool of your defeats. Learn from them and move on. Just keep moving forward.
Though I can’t really stand a lot about Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, I think his response to a loss is genius. When asked about a tough loss, Bill is notoriously short: “We’re on to Denver.”
What he’s saying is, “I’m not going to sulk in this loss. I’m going to learn from it and move on. There are more games to play.” There are more games to play in your life, too. Debrief, analyze ways to get better, and move on.
You’ve got to have the kind of short memory of Kobe Bryant who, as Jeff Van Gundy once said, would miss every shot in the game and pull up for the last-second game winner like he’d been on fire all night. It only takes one shot to turn things around.
Keep a short record of your failures. And move on to the next play, the next game, the next opportunity. Take a shot at it like you’ve been draining threes all night.
Sixth, God’s plan for growing you into the kind of man or woman who will stand with him in glory involves suffering hard things. Your character is more important than whatever short-term success you think you’re owed (and by the way, you’re not).
So drink to your losses just like you would your wins—you’ll learn more from the losses anyway. Embrace failure as the necessary path to ultimate success. How you overcome adversity says more about the champion’s heart in you than any checks in life’s win column ever could. Be a champion. Respond to failure with grace, and keep your head up. This isn’t the end of your story—it’s just part of the process.
After a string of horrible, unthinkable and heartbreaking losses to start the 2016 NFL season, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers responded to the media and his trial the way we all should. So difficult was the loss that preceded his comments—the Chargers had a 20-yard field goal to win the game but the placeholder muffed the snap, bringing their consecutive losses to four—that head coach Mike McCoy said, “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, that happens. I can’t explain it.”
Rivers went on:
“I hate losing more than anybody, but look, I know there’s a greater purpose in all of it,” Rivers said after the loss. “Whatever that purpose is, whatever character traits [God] is trying to mold out of me, I’m going to attack it head on and keep fighting, that’s the only way I know. I don’t hate losing less, but I’m better equipped by God’s grace to handle situations like this.
If there’s any positive to come out of it, like maybe there’s a 10-year-old boy somewhere saying ‘God, you know what, he’s handling it well,’ as bad as it could be, maybe that’s the only good I can see right now, but I know there’s a good purpose in it.”
Likewise, after a recent tough loss, I love what UFC fighter Conor McGregor said to a reporter.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, but this is the fight business. It can be very, very cruel at times, but this is the business. I’ll take it like a man,” McGregor said. “I’ll learn from it and I’ll come back better…right now I’m gonna have a drink and celebrate…I will celebrate this, like you should. You should celebrate all adversity because it makes you grow and it makes you stronger.”
That’s the final word I’ll add for now: Celebrate your failures as opportunities to grow and to get better and to overcome adversity. This isn’t the end of your story—it’s just the beginning, no matter what you’re facing. So pour a cold one, take it like a man (or woman), and embrace it as an opportunity to get better.
Never, never, never give up
Finally, consider these words from Churchill on dealing with failure:
“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Is that how you define your success, namely, as the resiliency to keep getting back up after getting the living daylights knocked out of you? To press on in the wake of disillusionment?
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
“Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Like Tom Petty sang, refuse to back down. Be strong and courageous.