“Look at him, he is such a loser…” I wonder if that was what Íñigo López de Loyola, who would later be known as St. Ignatius of Loyola, was imagining others saying after he was struck down during the battle of Pamplona. Although his forces were outnumbered, Íñigo, who wanted to be known for his battlefield exploits, couldn’t stand the idea of losing. So, he fought until a cannonball shattered his leg. Some people might think of this as an example of bravery, but I can’t help but think of it as a sign of Ignatius’s insecurity. He was afraid of failure.
I still remember many of my own past failures. Then there are other experiences that hurt me so much they left holes in my memory. One of those moments came during a chess tournament I was playing in when I was 7-years-old. I played well the whole tournament and ended up making the final. But the outcome of that game is a hole in my memory. It’s simply a blank space. My mom later told me that I lost the final game and that I was so sad and disappointed that no one could appease me until my dad took me home. That memory was so painful that my mind seems to have rejected it entirely. This game had an outsized impact on my life growing up. I refused to do anything that would risk failure. I played it safe. Nothing could hurt me inside that risk-free life.
A retreat in my third year in college helped me change that mindset. In that retreat, I heard the song, Let Me Fall from Cirque du Soleil. Its lyrics struck me to the core:
Let me fall/ Let me climb/ There’s a moment when fear and dreams must collide/ Someone I am is waiting for courage/ The one I want/ The one I will become Will catch me/ So let me fall/ If I must fall/ I won’t heed your warnings / I won’t hear them.
The haunting music and figurative lyrics made me imagine an acrobat performing in the air. The moment she made a breathtaking leap seemed like she was dancing in utmost freedom in the suspended space between rising and falling.
That song helped me realize that I’d been longing for that sort of freedom my entire life. I knew that if I followed my desires, I would reach a point where I had to take a leap into the unknown. My dreams and desires would beckon me to make that step, and I knew fear would be my biggest obstacle‚—the fear of losing myself, the fear of changing, of becoming someone else. In these moments, “fears” and “dreams” would collide. Still, behind the veil of the unknown was newness— “someone I am,” waiting for my courage to make the leap.
Since that retreat, I’ve experienced many moments of my dreams colliding with my fear. On some of those occasions, fear of failure overpowered me, and I turned back. Still, the lyrics of that song continue to give me the strength and courage to risk failure, overcome my fear, and make that leap into the unknown.
When I began discerning religious life, I came to stay at the Jesuit Novitiate in Culver City, CA for a “Come and See” weekend. At first, I was overwhelmed by all the people there. The thought of living with them scared the heck out of me, as I grew up in a Vietnamese family and I’d never lived away from them. Religious life as a Jesuit would be a completely new experience for me. Nonetheless, when I shared that fear with a novice who was accompanying me during that weekend, he helped me recognize a desire to live this life– to open my heart that others may enter and to risk entering theirs. I wanted to be vulnerable, I wanted to be authentic, and I wanted to be free.
Making the leap into the unknown is never an easy experience. Throughout my life as a Jesuit, this song has kept coming back to me whenever I needed to make a leap— to give up my old self and become someone new. The pain that always comes with it is a sort of spiritual death and rebirth. Like a mother in labor, the pain sometimes seems unbearable, yet new life comes after.
Two years after that “come and see” weekend, when I was a Jesuit Novice, I received a call from a friend back in college. He told me that he was discerning religious life, and he wanted to hear my experience of being a Jesuit. Hearing that, I took a brief moment to remember what happened in my life after I made that decision to join the Jesuits. Then, I told him, “You know what, I’ll be honest with you, this life is not easy… but it is worth everything that I’ve given up for it.”
Failure is never an easy experience, but if I don’t get stuck by the fear of it and all its accompanying feelings– shame, guilt, and disappointment—, then I can use it as the opportunity to grow and transform. I can experience that freedom I long for once again.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.1
- John 12: 24-25 ↩