The things that have inspired me most are not what you might expect.
Some of them are not very inspiring at all. For example:
- I once had a professor who went to daily Mass. He’d sheepishly walk in late---sometimes extremely late—every single day, as far as I remember. This didn’t make me want to emulate the lateness, but it impressed me no end: the humility to keep showing up, day after day, so imperfectly, so publicly. (The chapel was too tiny for an inconspicuous entrance.) Most people would have given up altogether.
- Once, when I was a fairly new convert, I visited a friend who was a serious Catholic. She had many small children (actually, two, but they seemed like seven). Her floors were sticky, her little girls were driving her crazy, her husband had been unemployed for what seemed like forever, and they were having some awful marriage problems. I was fascinated: abandoning her faith never seemed to occur to her. (Now, a couple decades later, she’s doing great.) She didn’t make me aspire to a messy house and an unhappy marriage, but she did give me hope that if these were to befall me, I wouldn’t have to give up on God or imagine He’d given up on me. She helped to uproot my half-conscious assumption that faith was for people who were perfect already.
- My parents, as my mother once put it, “did everything wrong” with us. They moved us around (from Brooklyn to Jerusalem to New England); they kept switching religions (Buddhism to Evangelicalism to Catholicism); and they thoroughly failed to keep up a serene and edifying facade in the face of it all. They certainly gave us a loving and stable home, and I have no complaints, to say the least. But you know how some people reminisce: “In 87 years, I never once heard my mother complain,” or “I can’t recall my father ever raising his voice”? I'm not saying those people are lying, but I do know that if my parents had been like that I would have despaired long ago.
- When my mother was investigating various religions, she was favorably struck by something uninspiring. All the Catholics, she noticed, considered themselves bad Catholics. She was impressed.
Please don’t misunderstand. There is such a thing as contagious defeatism, and I’m not defending it. Bragging about your failures, even under the guise of a joke, can have a depressing effect on everybody else’s standards. I’ve seen it among mothers, homeschoolers, Catholics: people trying to live out difficult commitments with high stakes. (I'm sure it happens in other circles, too, but these are my home turf.)
Somebody starts by venting her disgust with herrself for failing to meet modest standards of discipline, academic seriousness, or virtue. If her hearers are having more success, they feel self-righteous. If not, they're deflated ("If she can’t manage to teach long division, or complete a single novena on schedule, what hope is there for me?")
So what’s the difference? Why do some failures inspire and others depress?
It has to do, first of all, with sheer perseverence, with continuing to show up. Churchill goes so far as to say "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
Jacques Philippe says discouragement is a greater obstacle to holiness than sin, because sin can always be repented of, but discouragement cuts off hope.
It's also a question of how seriously you take yourself. If you're so shocked at your own underachievement that it makes you melodramatic, you're unlikely to inspire anyone. As Chesterton affirms, "If a thng is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." It's not that we aspire to do it badly, just that our will to keep going isn't at the mercy of our ability to sustain a 100% success rate.
Maybe this is just an exercise in self-justification. Maybe normal people aren't motivated by failure. But in the meantime, call me uninspiring. I'll take it as a compliment.