Posted by: dacalu | 24 October 2011

Impossible Things

A friend of mine shared a rather remarkable essay with me recently.  It was about doing impossible things.  While I cannot share her remarks in entirety, I do want to share some wonderful insights she had and inspired in me.

Learning can be a difficult process and rarely more so than in the context of martial arts classes.  I regularly ask people to do things that they cannot do – either because they lack the skill or because they lack the ability (strength, speed, intelligence…).  I do confess that many of them look at me like I’m crazy.  “I can’t do that,” they say to themselves.  Before they learn better, they say it to me as well.  And perhaps you think I’m cruel to ask this of them, but it has an important point.  To borrow the words of Max Weber, “What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.”

I cannot stress it strongly enough; we achieve more than we knew we could by reaching beyond what we know.  Learning is always a matter of stretching ourselves, not just physically, but mentally as well.  First, we develop new muscles and new perspectives.  Second, we discover our limits.  But there is a third, and equally important aspect – we learn how to fail.  It is ever so important to get into the habit of trying more than we can accomplish, to constantly reach for more knowledge, more skill so that we learn not to be afraid anymore.

So much of life can be consumed by a fear that we will look foolish, or even be foolish, when the only way to wisdom is through foolery.  I don’t mean one should intentionally make mistakes; I mean that we cannot identify those mistakes until we place them out in the open where they can be analyzed, inspected, and consciously chosen (or discarded).

The subject comes up in the college classes I teach.  I can’t tell you how many students refrain from speaking because they worry that they will be judged by fellow students or by the teacher.  I encourage them to speak up; here’s why.  A stupid assumption, once spoken can be corrected, or at least addressed.  A stupid assumption held tightly and silently will stay with you for life.  The best and quickest way to learn is to find educated intelligent people and throw as much of your stupidity at them as you can in the hopes they will relieve you of some of it.

It’s been profoundly influential in my education, this realization that I need to engage if I want to grow.  Kathryn Shulz deals with the idea in her book Being Wrong.  I haven’t read it yet, but I did see her excellent TED talk.  “What does it feel like to be wrong?” she asks.  Does it feel bad? Of course not, it feels exactly like being right.  It’s finding out you’re wrong that hurts.  But that’s precisely what we want.  We want to discover that we are wrong about things so that we can come to know what’s right.

Practical knowledge operates the same way.  I start by trying to do something very difficult, maybe even impossible.  Of course, being me, I get the best head start I can.  I try to learn from people who already know.  I read, I study, but at some point I have to get my feet wet.  I have to try.  It was a great and profound shock to me to realize that, in most cases, I had to be bad at something before I got good.  I was a very bad martial artist for years (really), before I got good.  I was at best a mediocre teacher and flat preacher.  I was a poor scientist and an “enthusiastic” singer.  I had to go through that.  I had to fail.  I think I’m a pretty good teacher and preacher these days – though there is clearly a long way to go.  I’m a passable scientist and singer.  Some things I will never be great at, but I wasn’t even decent until after I was scarily bad – until after I’d gotten all the false starts out of the way.

Proficiency takes more than trying, of course.  Let us be clear.  Proficiency takes trying in the company of proficient and compassionate people.  That can be the rub, but it turns out proficient and compassionate people are not as hard to find as you may think.  (The trick is to ask what the available people are proficient at, rather than what you think they should be good at.  This too takes practice.)

A good community is one that will encourage you to try and fail.  A good community rewards you for the effort and accepts you in your failure – precisely because they too are constantly striving, constantly failing, and continually learning.  Beware of any group whose members think they already know fully, they already understand.  Those are the people who cannot learn.  If anything, I worry that I don’t push my students enough.

Nothing is more empowering than the realization that you can grow.  We have been conditioned to pessimism about ourselves, our communities, our nation, and our church.  We have been taught to believe that admitting failure is a weakness when it is our greatest strength.  Growth only comes from failure – repeated, frustrating, reorienting failure.

If you’ve ever wondered about the value of religion, it can only be this – to result in transformation.  I have no qualms in saying this.  Easy, comfortable, stabilizing religion is bad religion.  Churches that never make you uneasy cannot really be giving you the good news, because the good news involves growth.  It asks… promises… even demands the impossible, because you must start there.  Nothing less will do.  World peace.  Perfect love.  Economic justice.  Complete acceptance.  Unconditional forgiveness.  We haven’t the skill or the ability – yet.  And we never will unless we try the impossible.  We never will unless we make communities that reward people for being truly miserable at the hard tasks in life, because truly miserable is a step up from hopeless.  Bad performance is a step beyond no performance.  That’s exactly what the church should be about.

If your faith does not provide this, look for another one.  If your church does not encourage you to fail, change churches.  If you can’t find one, start one.  (Sounds impossible, right?)  Be awkward in faith.  Be stupid, foolish, and tedious, because that’s the first step to being smart, wise, and efficient.  The problems of life have solutions, if only we can admit that the silly assumptions of the present are only worth the time it takes to replace them with something better.  If only we’re willing to be truly honest about what we don’t know and what the options might be.

Take heart, have faith, and find the people who will help you on the way.



  1. I really appreciate these insights. I recently went for some learning disabilities testing. I am an seminary student and working on my MDiv. The end results of the tests were that I was of average intelligence but achieve above average in academics. I was also told that most people in my situation would not attempt to work on Masters level work. This started me thinking that maybe I was not really called to do this. However, I truly believe I am called to be a pastor and reading this really helped confirm that this is just an opportunity to reach and do more than I thought possible, as I have done in most of my life. Thanks for sharing.

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