The Secret of All Progress
By Jim Berlucchi
“The rest of you boys…thanks for trying out and enjoy the rest of your summer.” The broad-shouldered football coach was a kind man. He was giving us few stragglers the bad news. And it was official. We didn’t make the Immaculate Heart of Mary 5th grade football team. We could turn in our shoulder pads and go home.
I lowered my head, got on my bike and surveyed the 40 or so guys still practicing. Rats. I had really counted on making the team. But before I got home an idea occurred to me. Why not show up tomorrow for practice anyway?
I must have instinctively sensed the law of attrition. I came the next three days. By Friday I was on the team. My brute power (all 68 pounds of it) had been given the place of a bigger guy who quit.
The law of attrition met the law of persistence and my inauspicious football career began. Most importantly, at the age of just 10, I had learned a magnificent truth: “The secret of all progress and every virtue is, in fact, to know how to begin again – to learn from a failure and to try once more.”
Last year I read the above quote from Fr. Georges Chevrot, and I memorized it and have quoted it often since. Nunc coepi! Begin again!
The world offers abundant examples of the validity of this secret. Thomas Edison was an inventor of staggering talent and even more staggering perseverance. He had more than 1,000 patents by the end of his life and made more than 10,000 attempts to create his most famous invention, the light bulb. But he didn’t believe in failure. Instead, he boasted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
The secret to his progress was overcoming his greatest weakness and yours and mine as well – calling it quits. As Edison himself put it, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
If beginning again is so powerful in the worldly realm, how much more is this true in the life of grace, where our efforts are supernaturally multiplied by the Holy Spirit?
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be like minded. (Philippians 3:12-15)
The apostle Paul boasted of his hardships, but even more of the victories that he realized through the grace of Christ. He began from a position of immense failure as a blasphemer and persecutor of the Church. In his weakness, he found strength. In his failures, he looked to God, and began again.
St. Peter exemplified starting again after stumbling, or even after denying our Lord. He also exhorts us to never give up.
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and about, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)
I knew a young man who repeatedly fell into sexual sin. He was a sincere Christian but seemed to be going backwards in virtue. He decided to go to confession more frequently. “It seemed like Groundhog Day,” he told me. “I confessed the same sin over and over.”
Over and over, he was absolved again, and again, and again. Grace upon grace upon grace. After years of struggle, he broke through the chastity barrier and now habitually lives that high virtue. He applied the secret of all progress and every virtue – to know how to begin again. To learn from a failure and to try once more.
Fr. Spitzer talks about building Happiness Level 3 and 4 virtues by rejecting the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the tragic figure in Greek mythology who was condemned to an eternity of frustration. He was forced to roll a boulder up the side of a mountain, only to see it roll back again to the bottom, where he would have to start over. Fr. Spitzer has said
“When we feel failure, we tend to think the myth of Sisyphus is true. ‘I tried it 30 times and it’s not working! I should have made much more progress. I’m rolling the rock up from the very bottom again.’ Oh, no, you’re not! Your effort has notched a pattern in your subconscious mind. You’ve fallen but the rock hasn’t. It gets a little higher with every effort. Just dust off, walk back up to the rock, and start pushing again. You’re not starting all over.”
And you’re not. The grace of God is more sufficient than your every weakness, and even is magnified through your weaknesses. By faith in Christ we conquer, by simply beginning again – and learning from every failure.
Nunc coepi! Begin again!
Editors note: For more information on the author’s subsequent football career, don’t bother doing further research.
By Jim Berlucchi, Executive Director of the Spitzer Center