Skip to main content


K2. Image from
It's not as easy to fail as one might think.  Oh really?  Yes, because a lot of the time what we take to be failure is not. In fact, one could say that many of our ideas about failure (not achieving a desired outcome) are more myth than truth. And I don't mean myth in the sense of a traditional story concerning the early history of a people, a folk tale, but that it is a widely held but false idea. Often our concept of failure is too simple, and we jump to the "F" word quicker than a cat off a hot stove. The equation seems rather straightforward: I want A. I need to do B to accomplish. A. I was unable to complete B.  I did not accomplish A. I failed. Now, wait just a minute. Let's back this up a bit and look at some of the problems with this equation.

1. We assume that A is obvious and very specific. The fact is that the more specific we make our goal, the more likely we will need to adjust it as we go along. Keeping A rather broad allows us to interpret and apply it in different ways, allowing lots of flexibility and creativity. For example, loving others is a very flexible, broad goal which can be pursued in numerous ways. On the other hand, buying a new car for our neighbour is a much more specific and difficult goal. And it may not be the best way we can show love to our neighbour.

2. We assume that there is only one way (B) to accomplish A. This type of narrowness sets us up for failure. There are many ways to get something done, so it is best to explore a few different options, ready to switch methods if one doesn't work out. Because life always throws something at us that we weren't expecting, the path to our goal is often not a straight line.  We should always be more committed to the goal than to the method. I am not saying that the end justifies the means, but that there are lots of means. Don't get locked into just one.

3. When we do fail to accomplish a certain task, it does not mean that we have failed overall or that the goal is now unattainable. It just means that we have hit an obstacle along the way. We probably need to stop and re-evaluate, look at different options, get some wise counsel if we can.  As long as we have not reached A, A is still possible. Somehow. Someway.

4. When A really looks like a lost cause, perhaps it is time to dig a little deeper and see if it was indeed a worthy and reasonable goal.  Sometimes we set our sights on something which, though useful in getting us started on a journey, is not really what we ultimately want or need.  As we go along, we might realize that the goal we had in mind is not really adequate. Our desires might be misguided or unrealistic. We may have mistaken fear, nostalgia, compulsion, anger, or any other strong desire or emotion for the motivation and confirmation of our goal. It is totally okay (and often wise) to re-imagine and re-adjust our goals as we go along.  If we don't do this, we might want to question if we are learning anything as we journey through life. Have we gained more information that needs to be taken into consideration? Have we heard some wise counsel which changes our outlook? Have we experienced healing in a way that has removed former compulsions and might significantly impact our goals?

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating indecisiveness, breaking commitments, or endlessly changing course until one is confused and lost. What I am talking about is seeing temporary setbacks or adjustments as just that - temporary. Not the ultimate failure. I am talking about the need to hold fast to broad goals (love each other) and keep more specific ones (buying someone a car) in an open hand. By all accounts, I have failed many times in one of the goals I set for myself this year, yet I am still working away at it. The methods have changed, the timetable has been adjusted, and my expectations have fluctuated. But I am still on the path (though I floundered several times) and I am happy to say that the end is in sight.

This week I started reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. It is the story of a man who set out to honour his sister's memory by climbing K2 (2nd highest mountain in the world, considered by many the most difficult mountain for climbers to scale) and leaving her necklace at the top.  By all accounts, Greg Mortensen failed. After months of preparation, an incident involving another member of the team cost him his shot at the top. After a grueling 96 hour supply climb and descent, Mortensen and his teammate were called on to rescue a fellow climber in trouble. With only two hours of rest, they set out again and climbed for 24 hours to reach the sick man who was suffering from a pulmonary edema (and by this time his brain had begun to swell as well). There were two other climbers with the sick man, so all four men spent another 54 hours dragging and lowering the incapacitated man down craggy rock faces before they reached K2 base camp.

Mortensen and his fellow climber had so depleted their physical resources that they decided it would be too risky to attempt an ascent that year.  They both headed back toward civilization. Due to K2's remote location, it took another seven days of hiking to reach the nearest town. In his weakened state, Mortensen wandered off the path numerous times, once for several hours which left him alone on the glacier for a night with very limited supplies. On the last day, when his porter had gone on ahead, Mortensen again took a wrong turn and ended up in a small mountain village he had never heard of. Exhausted, he collapsed into the hospitality of the people of Korphe and slept in the house of the chief elder.

Mortensen felt something special in the town of Korphe and chose to recuperate there. As he regained strength, he got to know the resilient people of the mountain village and saw the struggles they faced. When Mortensen asked to see the village's school, the chief took him to an open area where 82 children (only 4 of them girls) knelt on the frosty ground and did their lessons without a teacher. At that point, Mortensen made a decision. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Standing next to Haji Ali,on the ledge overlooking the valley, with such a crystalline view of the mountain he'd come halfway around the world to measure himself against, climbing K2 to place a necklace on its summit suddenly felt beside the point. There was a much more meaningful gesture he could make in honor of his sister's memory. He put his hands on Haji Ali's shoulders, as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they'd shared their first cup of tea. "I'm going to build you a school," he said, not yet realizing that with these words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he'd taken since retreating from K2. (Three Cups of Tea, p. 33)

Mortensen did fail at reaching the summit of K2 and planting his sister's necklace there. But in failing to do so, he saved the life of a teammate, he made friends with the people of Korphe, and he founded an organization that has built over 170 schools in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing education for many children, including 54,000 girls. His goal in honouring the memory of his sister was reached in a way more fantastic, meaningful, and far-reaching than he first imagined. And that's not really failure.

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.

- from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

NOTE: There are some questions about the veracity of certain parts of the book and most recently, Mortenson has come under investigation for handling of funds for his charity, CAI. While I acknowledge these difficulties with the story, I do believe that the point of this blog still stands.


Joshua Hopping said…
Before you promote Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" book too much, note that quite a bit of that book is false. Author Jon Krakauer worked with news shows 60 Minutes to show that Greg never visited Korphe after his failed K2 climb, never was captured by the Taliban and, well, while he did build some school, most of them are no longer or never did function. In fact, Greg is a known cook who stole/misused millions of donor funds for his personal use. Sadly enough, his book is still being sold as a nonfiction biographical story of a real event... yet there are too many facts out there proving otherwise. =/
Matte Downey said…
Thanks, Joshua. I am aware of the questions surrounding Mortenson's book and also the unfortunate death of his co-author in the middle of the controversy. My post does not make any claims about the accuracy of the details of the story (the introduction to the book indicates that Mortenson sometimes plays fast and loose with details, so this should be no surprise to the reader), but I believe the point of the story still stands.

That being said, I do think we should extend a certain amount of grace to those who, in muddled ways, try to do some good and find themselves in over their heads both morally and managerially. At the same time, people must be held accountable for how they use funds from donors, how they present their cause to the public, and making sure their aid is working for long-term positive effect instead of short-term payoff.

Thanks for the link.


Popular posts from this blog

the songs we sing

NOTE: I am going to make some pretty strong statements below, but understand that it is my way of taking an honest, hard look at my own worship experience and practice. My desire is not to be overly critical, but to open up dialogue by questioning things I have assumed were totally fine and appropriate. In other words, I am preaching to myself. Feel free to listen in.


When I am in a church meeting during the singing time, I sometimes find myself silent, unable to get the words past my lips. At times I just need a moment of stillness, time to listen, but other times, the words make me pause because I don't know that I can sing them honestly or with integrity. This is a good thing. We should never mindlessly or heartlessly sing songs just because everyone else is. We should care deeply about what we say in our sung, communal worship.

At their best, songs sung by the gathered body of Christ call to life what is already in us: the hope, the truth, the longing, t…

the movement of humility

We live in a context of stratification where much of society is ordered into separate layers or castes. We are identified as upper class, middle class, or lower class. Our language reflects this up/down (superior/inferior) paradigm. We want to be at the top of the heap, climb the ladder of success, break through the glass ceiling, be king of the hill. This same kind of thinking seeps into our theology. When we talk about humility, we think mostly think in terms of lowering ourselves, willfully participating in downward mobility. This type of up/down language is certainly present in biblical texts (James 4:10 is one example), but I believe that the kind of humility we see in Jesus requires that we step outside of a strictly up/down paradigm. Instead of viewing humility as getting down low or stepping down a notch on the ladder of society, perhaps it is more helpful to think in terms of proximity and movement.

Jesuit theologian, James Keenan, notes that virtues and vices are not really…

vertical theology

Much of the thinking and writing I have been doing for the past year or so, especially in academic settings, has to do with how hierarchy is embedded in our theology and ways of structuring communities. To me, that's not a g