Objects in Motion

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Objects in Motion

Successes, Failures and Doubting Thomases

We all want to succeed. It’s a normal and expected part of our human nature. However, failure and adversity, as unwelcome as they are in our lives, may be better teachers in helping to define who we are and who we are destined to be. Examining data and analyzing results are defining qualities of a good scientist, and when these practices are performed properly, they benefit humankind, even when the result is not what was expected. In fact, a cursory look at history reveals that some of most successful scientific achievements were the result of failures, of losing one’s way, or of so-called “accidents.”

Fortunately, Jesus liked flawed human beings. Many of his apostles were not always stellar success stories. How can we forget Thomas’ insistence upon inspecting the “physical evidence”? Thomas demonstrated a classic condition of scientists, a need for direct proof to believe. However, after Jesus insisted that he place his fingers in the wounds, Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus did not let Thomas’ temporary failure of faith stop his work as an apostle. He understood that a failure, when understood and addressed, could promote, support and amplify our faith. So, at the moment of his discovery of his resurrected teacher, Thomas becomes the first person in Scriptures to call Jesus God! Jesus’ love and guidance allow for greatness to develop within us despite our misgivings.

When scientists examine their work and a desired effect is not found, they must make adjustments. Take, for instance, the discovery of penicillin. Before penicillin, there was no effective treatment for bacterial infections. Standard treatment for an infected wound was often to hospitalize the patient, and then wait and hope that his immune system could defeat the infection.

The discovery of penicillin might never have occurred if Dr. Alexander Fleming had not made an untidy scientific blunder by leaving dirty petri dishes on his lab side table in a rush to get an early start to his summer vacation in 1928. Upon his return, he noticed that bacteria growth was non-existent in an area of the petri dish where a mold, Penicillium notatum, had grown. Although the mold was not an expected part of the experiment, Dr. Fleming decided to investigate this unusual result. He had an intuition that this might be a “breakthrough” for treating infectious disease. It took Dr. Fleming a few weeks to reproduce measurable amounts of the mold, but he was able to confirm his initial observation. In a few years, penicillin could be produced in a reliable and cost-effective manner, and today we can credit antibiotics for contributing to extending life expectancy from 47 years at the beginning of the 20th century to 79 years today.

So, failure and simple careless blunders can lead to spectacular success. It is likewise true that the obsessive pursuit of success can result in ruin. Natural rubber is a sticky liquid drawn from incisions to the bark of the rubber tree. Though it is waterproof, it proved to be difficult to work with due to its sticky nature. Charles Goodyear was curious about this new compound and so began a preoccupation with developing a better and more workable rubber product. Goodyear’s major discovery was that sulfur, when added to hot rubber (vulcanization), created a rubber compound that made it immune to the sticky melting problems of early rubber compounds. Although this discovery would provide fortunes for many that used his process, Goodyear would sacrifice the most important thing in all of our lives in pursuit of this success, family. He spent time in debtor’s prison, accumulated over $200,000 of personal debt, and provided squalid living conditions for his family, exposing them to the caustic chemicals used in his “kitchen laboratory.” His single-minded ambition without reflection and care for his family led to a greater failure than the success that he attained in perfecting rubber.

The establishment of realistic goals in life is important. However, the pathway to success can and will be intertwined with setbacks. There will be moments where doubt can overwhelm and confuse us. The Boston Marathon female winner this year, Desiree “Des” Linden, started the race expecting to withdraw. The weather seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. Linden even stopped when a fellow competitor, Shalane Flanagan, took a bathroom break, telling Flanagan, “If there’s anything I can do to help you out, let me know because I might drop out.” However, as the race progressed, Linden noticed that she was near the front of the pack. She recounted that once she accepted the fact she was not dropping out, she decided to, “Just show up for one more mile. Show up for one more minute.” The conditions were remarkably like her Michigan training conditions. Linden used these adverse conditions to her advantage, becoming the first American woman to win the marathon since 1985. Her fellow competitor, Flanagan, finished the race in 6th place.

The ability to turn a setback into a positive thing while helping a fellow human being is vital in maintaining a true and a close relationship with God. Just “showing up” is not the mission or purpose of being human, but showing up when things are tough can contribute to our relationship with God; he will be there right beside us each step of the way, when we struggle, when we fail, when we succeed – always. Pope St. John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”

Through crucifixion, Christ was deemed a failure by non-believers. Through his resurrection, he demonstrated the purest form of success as our savior. He invites us to imitate him, to embrace our human frailties and failures, to adjust to adversity, to discover the truth in the place where we were not looking, and to ultimately realize our redemption. 

Jim Miller is a Chemistry teacher at Bishop Brady High School in Concord, N.H.