The courage to risk failure
I passed my first CLEP exam yesterday: Biology. On a scale from 20 to 80, I got a 63 — not a home run by any definition, but it’s a solid pass and I will take it, thankyouverymuch. One less prerequisite to sit through and pay for!
The thing is, the first 20 questions were so hard I almost gave up in despair.
I put several months of solid effort into studying, using online tutorials (Modern States and Khan Academy), several CLEP review books, and a good old fashioned giant honking textbook. My scores on the practice exams went steadily up, and I felt adequately prepared.
Still, I was anxious when I sat down to take the test. There was a lot riding on it, and not just the potential credits. It was my first step down the road toward nursing school. It was my first attempt at self-study on a topic about which I had precious little experience. And I knew it was not going to be a cakewalk — even the practice exams had stretched me uncomfortably. As I clicked “Begin,” my heart was already pounding.
And then, the onslaught. I was confident about maybe three of the first 20 questions, had an educated 50-50 guess about a handful more, and took wild and increasingly panicked stabs at the rest. I felt like I had studied a completely different subject. Anxiety reigned supreme for the next 30 minutes as I realized I had dug myself a tremendous (insurmountable?) hole; I felt nauseated, my breath came shallow, my palms were sweaty. [Aside: it’s possible I may have picked up a very real anxiety problem somewhere in the last three years… I wonder how that might have happened… #ptsd]
I prayed and prayed as I clicked and clicked. More than once, I stopped altogether and just took deep breaths. As the questions continued, I found myself on more familiar footing, but I couldn’t shake the haunted feeling that I had already blown it at the outset.
When I finished the last question, I reviewed the ones I had marked or left blank. So, so many of them. Even with a cooler head, I didn’t have any new ideas or insight.
Then I was presented with a screen that offered a choice: Report Scores, or Cancel Scores.
For about 30 seconds, I just stared at the words. The test administrator had told me this was coming. “If you hit cancel, it’s like it never happened,” she explained. “We can’t get your test back, and neither can the College Board.”
You don’t know how close I came to hitting Cancel.
I prayed to Mary: “This is all your big idea. I did what I could, so I’m leaving the rest up to you.” And I clicked Report.
So, yes, I passed the test. However: I almost failed by sabotaging my own success. Because I almost wasn’t willing to even risk failing. Because, despite what I said in my prayers, I really hated turning over the outcome to Jesus and his mother. Because I couldn’t stand even the possibility of finding out that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
What was the worst case scenario, really? I would be out $110 and would have to wait three months to retake the test. I would have to explain to my family that I had failed.
Or actually, this: I would have to face the reality that the thing that is being asked of me is really hard, and that the outcome is not guaranteed.
So yes, I learned a lot about introductory cellular, molecular, organismal, and population biology. (Not even close to everything, obviously!) But that feeling of standing on the precipice of failure is a new and not very pleasant one for me. I am used to being really good at school. I am used to blowing tests out of the water.
That did not happen here.
Again, the title of this blog comes back to haunt me. Faithful, not successful. I’m stepping out to do the thing that I believe God is asking me to do… but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work exactly the way I think it will. What he’s asking of me is not to completely fulfill the mission. What he’s asking is for me to have the courage to risk the possibility of failure.
(But also, you guys! I taught myself college biology, albeit very imperfectly, and that is something to celebrate!)
I’m a Catholic wife, mother of six, and writer who wrestles with the problem of pain. What does faith look like in times of adversity and struggle? I’m so glad to have you here, joining the conversation. Learn more about me 🠖
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