In our journey on earth, we discover that life is made up of challenges—they just differ from one person to another. We are success-oriented, striving to become “wonder women” and “super men.” Any hint of failure can cause panic, even despair. Who among us cannot remember moments of failure?
One such moment came to me as a young basketball player. The game was close—hotly contested—when the coach called me from the bench to run a key play. For some reason which I shall never understand, I took the pass and dribbled the ball right through the opposing team. I jumped high toward the basket; and, as the basketball left my fingertips, I came to the abrupt realization that I was shooting for the wrong basket. I offered the shortest prayer I have ever spoken: “Dear Father, don’t let that ball go in.” My prayer was answered, but my ordeal was just beginning. I heard a loud cheer erupt from the adoring fans: “We want Monson, we want Monson, we want Monson … OUT!” The coach obliged.
Not long ago I read about an incident that occurred in the life of U.S. President Harry S. Truman after he had retired and was back in Independence, Missouri. He was at Truman Library, talking with some elementary school students and answering their questions. Finally, a question came from an owlish little boy. “Mr. President,” he said, “was you popular when you was a boy?” The President looked at the boy and answered, “Why, no. I was never popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.” The little boy started to applaud, and then everyone else did, too (Vital Speeches, Feb. 1983, p. 6).
Our responsibility is to rise from mediocrity to competence, from failure to achievement. Our task is to become our best selves. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the joy of trying again, for no failure ever need be final.
In 1902, the poetry editor of the Atlantic Monthly returned a sheaf of poems to a 28-year-old poet with this curt note: “Our magazine has no room for your vigorous verse.” The poet was Robert Frost. In 1894, the rhetoric teacher at Harrow in England wrote on a 16-year-old’s report card, “A conspicuous lack of success.” The 16-year-old was Winston Churchill.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena” (The American Treasury: 1455–1955, ed. Clifton Fadiman, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955, p. 689).
We know men and women can change—and change for the better. No more vivid example is recorded than the life of Saul of Tarsus. The sacred record reveals that Saul threatened the disciples of the Lord. Then came that light from heaven and the voice saying unto him: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest” (Acts 9:4–5).
Saul’s answer is a model for each of us: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). Saul the persecutor became Paul the proselyter. Night had turned to day. Darkness had yielded to light.
Simon Peter, that fisherman who left his nets and followed the Lord, had his time of struggle. He had been weak and fearful and had denied his Lord with an oath. Then there came change. Never again would he deny or desert his Lord. He found his place in the kingdom of God.
We have the example of Alma the Younger, who turned his back on sinful practices and wasteful ways. Conversion came. He became an exponent of truth. His tender words of counsel to his sons Helaman and Corianton are literary classics. To Helaman: “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God” (Alma 37:35). To Corianton: “Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing” (Alma 39:11).
Then and now, as President David O. McKay so consistently taught, the gospel of Jesus Christ can make bad men good and good men better, can alter human nature and change human lives.
In the private sanctuary of one’s own conscience lies that spirit, that determination to cast off the old person and to measure up to the stature of true potential. But the way is rugged, and the course is strenuous. So discovered John Helander from Goteborg, Sweden. John is handicapped, and it is difficult for him to coordinate his motions.
At a youth conference in Kungsbacka, Sweden, John took part in a 1,500-meter running race. He had no chance to win. Rather, his was the opportunity to be humiliated, mocked, derided, scorned. Perhaps John remembered another who lived long ago and far away. Wasn’t He mocked? Wasn’t He derided? Wasn’t He scorned? But He prevailed. He won His race. Maybe John could win his.
What a race it was. Struggling, surging, pressing, the runners bolted far beyond John. There was wonderment among the spectators. Who is this runner who lags so far behind? The participants on their second lap of this two-lap race passed John while he was but halfway through the first lap. Tension mounted as the runners pressed toward the tape. Who would win? Who would place second? Then came the final burst of speed; the tape was broken. The crowd cheered; the winner was proclaimed.
The race was over—or was it? Who is this contestant who continues to run when the race is ended? He crosses the finish line on but his first lap. Doesn’t the foolish lad know he has lost? Ever onward he struggles, the only participant now on the track. This is his race. This must be his victory. No one among the vast throng of spectators leaves. Every eye is on this valiant runner. He makes the final turn and moves toward the finish line. There is awe; there is admiration. Every spectator sees himself running his own race of life. As John approaches the finish line, the audience, as one, rises to its feet. There is a loud applause of acclaim. Stumbling, falling, exhausted but victorious, John Helander breaks the newly tightened tape. (Officials are human beings, too.) The cheering echoes for miles. And just maybe, if the ear is carefully attuned, the Lord can be heard to say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).
Each of us is a runner in the race of life. Comforting is the fact that there are many runners. Reassuring is the knowledge that our eternal Scorekeeper is understanding. Challenging is the truth that each must run. But you and I do not run alone. That vast audience of family, friends, and leaders will cheer our courage, will applaud our determination as we rise from our stumblings and pursue our goal.
Let us shed any thought of failure. Let us discard any habit that may hinder. Let us seek; let us obtain the prize prepared for all, even exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God.