Allow us to introduce you to Athena. She started life as Greek goddess of wisdom, warfare and heroic endeavour, with the city of Athens added to her large divine portfolio. Our figure of her, a gift from some Greek friends, is spending her sunset years as a doorstop by our French door! It’s a steep decline in fortunes. She could be forgiven for thinking of her life ending in failure.
If she does so, it seems she is not the only one.
I was startled to read these words recently: ‘so many of us regard our lives as more or less a failure’. I would have quickly dismissed such an idea as superficial or simply false except that it was penned by someone whose opinion we both value highly, Rev Sam Wells, currently vicar of St Martin in the Fields on Trafalgar Square. In his book Be Not Afraid, he says that many of us live with the feeling that our lives are less than we would have liked them to be. And it is true that all sorts of people personally and in the media do share fragments of their disappointed hopes, frustrated ambitions, unrealistic expectations, disjointed relationships, unfulfilled potential, debilitating resentments. There may be tell-tale signs in such phrases as: ‘I should have done more with…’, ‘I could have chosen differently…’, ‘I wasn’t given the opportunity to…’, ‘I took the easy way out…’, ‘I regret…’
But can it be true that many of us tend to think of our lives like this, as largely failed projects? Maybe not failures but hardly as resounding successes? If so, it is rather sad. It is a weighty and unnecessary burden to carry.
Not everyone, it seems, thinks of their lives as ‘more or less a failure’.
The outgoing – some would say, disgraced – Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, chose this week to tell a story of the resounding success of his three years in the top job. But there is another version of the story to be told - of serious moral and political failure and of real damage to our democratic structures. Failure often seems to be in the eyes of the beholder.
So can we accurately measure the failure and success of our own lives – and if so, how?
There are many forces seeking to impose on us their definitions and criteria. And so success is often defined by publicly recognised achievement, by wealth, by career, by the successes of our children – witness Christmas round-robin letters - and so on. All readily measurable. But these are simplistic to say the least.
Those who are troubled by feelings of failure may be wise to reflect further. We are often prone to be harsher in our judgement of ourselves than others are of us. It is easy to compare the worst of ourselves with the best of others. We know the first only too well. We know about others only partially. We might be surprised by how others quietly look to us for an example or even with some envy. And times change. There’s ebb and flow. And there are chapters of our lives still to be written.
So consider Athena more closely. She may have had the Parthenon in Athens built in her name to celebrate her strength but she was a multi-tasker, the goddess of many cities charged with protecting their children. She was the goddess of household crafts like weaving. She was worshipped as the one who fought with those struggling for good causes. It’s not a bad CV.
In future when I see Athena by the back door I shall think more warmly of her. I shall think of warm summer days like today when she props the door open. Past her prime perhaps but still serving a valuable purpose. She was also goddess of weaving, of pulling many threads together to produce a pleasing effect. If we are able to do that, it is no small thing. Godlike even.