I do failure really well.
While I’m often reticent to share news of my accomplishments, I have very little issue with standing in front of a room full of strangers and talk at length about the myriad of missteps, wrong turns, and awkward gaffes I’ve experienced in my life. In fact, my affinity for sharing my failures is why I’m writing these very words. For the last couple of years at the NEXT Church National Conference, there’s been a Fail Story Slam, where folks are invited to share stories and laughter and to lean into the awkwardness of being human, albeit in front of a group of strangers. And it so happens that I am the TWO TIME REIGNING STORY SLAM CHAMPION.
It’s not that I’m a big fan of failure, it’s just that I’ve had enough gaffes to know that if they haven’t killed me yet, they likely won’t. And as someone who values authenticity and vulnerability, sharing our failures is often a way to cut through the b.s. that’s so much a part of the world. Or, maybe it’s a way of owning and telling my own story. I identify as non-binary; and, like many people with marginalized identities, I’ve had to learn how to navigate people’s projections or assumptions about my identity, and sharing stories of my failures can often be a way of getting ahead of whatever narrative folks may have about non-binary people. As Andrea Gibson, the spoken-word poet, says in their piece Your Life:
They’re gonna keep telling your heartbeat is a pre-existing condition.
They’re gonna keep telling you are a crime of nature
and you’re gonna look at all your options, and choose conviction,
choose to carve your own heart out of a side of a cliff,
choose to spend your whole life telling secrets you owe no one till everyone, till there isn’t anyone who can insult you by calling you what you are.
Like many non-binary people, I grew up without having a word for my gender. I never identified as male, and it wasn’t until adulthood that I had language to express why calling myself female never really felt right, either. I spent much of my childhood feeling like the red crayon in the children’s book Red: A Crayon’s Story: no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it.
It’s no surprise to me that many of my failures are in some way around gender, where I was participating in an event specific to women or girls. Looking back, my myriad of missteps in the moments I was trying hardest to be a girl: the stumble at just the wrong time in a dance routine, slipping on my petticoat (yes, for real) in the midst of a debutante bow, or the Freudian slips at the most awkward moment, seem almost like a message from my subconscious: a reflex response to the girlhood put upon me which I tried so hard, yet failed to wear. In many ways, learning to be gentle with myself around my failed attempts at being female has taught me how to be gentle with my other mess ups.
Earlier this week, a tweet by Alexander Leon, a writer at the LGBTQ group Kaleidescope Trust, went viral. Leon’s tweet about growing up queer resonated with so many folks that The Advocate wrote a piece about it. In further tweets, Leon said that the struggle of owning his queer identity early in life is a “gift in disguise. We [queer folks] come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves.” It’s hard not to sound trite here, but my failures have been the biggest asset to learning and loving who I am; and, in turn, to loving others.
By Jess Cook
This blog post appeared on the NEXT Church Blog in January 2020.