Failure is like compost

What goes in the compost bin? It took us a few weeks to figure that out. At our new house, we have a big black compost bin next to the garden that previous owners left here. It was pretty much full of compost when we got here, which is disgusting. But what’s weird is that it’s still not ready to be put in the garden. There are still tiny egg-shell bowls and blackened banana peels. No way I’m spreading that stuff out yet.

It turns out that it takes FOREVER to turn organic garbage into food for the garden. It’s not like this week’s apple cores turn into next week’s fertilizer. It’s not even ready next month. More likely, next year’s fertilizer is now being gathered when I slide the orange peels from our snack into the compost bin.

This description from was eye-opening to me:

Basically, if you are engaged in the process, you will need just a few months to get the compost you want. On the other hand, if you put all ingredients into the compost bin and forget about it, you can count on obtaining the usable compost only after a couple of years.

This makes perfect sense if you think about what’s happening. An apple core has a certain molecular structure, determining its shape, colors, smells, etc. When compost is ready, it no longer looks like a bunch of apple cores and other stuff rolling around in the barrel. It looks like dark, rich soil. But the apple molecules are still there.

It takes time to transform something inedible into something that can nourish plants. Interestingly, those plants then become something edible, and the cycle continues.

Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

I think this compost process is somewhat illustrative of what’s happening in our inward character. Whenever I screw up or do something well, that experience becomes part of my history. I imagine that God and the world are keeping a register of all my successes and failures. The big moments are highlighted and last longer.

Maybe this is the world’s way, but this view of God’s way is too passive. He is not sitting back and grading our lives with a red pen. He is a teacher, a mentor, and a parent. He is a gardener.

Even my biggest failings are compostable. Yes, our failures and our successes become part of who we are. But God is able to take the materials that these experiences are made of and turn them into fertilizer for future growth.

How does this happen? How do we make sure this happens? What is our job? As usual, the answer is not in list format.

Our job is to be a garden with a compost bin. Everyone is a garden, but not everyone has a compost bin. Every time we fail and every time we succeed, we can put the memory of that into the compost bin.

What the heck does that mean? It means that when we talk and think about what we’ve done, that’s what it is: it’s something we did. It’s not who we are. Who we are is the garden, and what we’ve done is the compost.

To be honest, one of the things I’m happiest about having done in my life so far is teaching my boys to read before they started kindergarten. I read books on how to do it, and I built in the habit of working on phonics a few times per week when they were about a year away from starting school. Both boys did fine. Now I’m teaching my daughter, who is four and will start school next fall.

Here’s where the whole compost thing happens: I have the positive experience of my boys learning and getting those “aha!” moments when the words become more than sounds to them. I remember also the times when they were super unmotivated and I wondered if we would ever get moving again.

When my boys started school, I had a choice about how to view our success. I could gild it with shiny metal and put it on my shelf. It would have a plaque that says, “ALLIE IS A GOOD MOM BECAUSE HER KIDS READ EARLY.” When people marvel at how well my boys do with reading, I can pull out my trophy and say, “Yes, I taught them myself!” This way of viewing my success makes it very hard for it to become fertilizer for my garden. It sits on a shelf and remains static.

And what’s worse, I might put pressure on my daughter to learn to read early, not because I think it’s good for her, but because I don’t want to lose my trophy!

Photo by Ariel Besagar on Unsplash

What I have endeavored to do instead is to keep it practical. I am thrilled that my dudes kill it when it comes to reading. I followed some simple instructions. I may not have been able to do it if my kids were developmentally challenged or if our lives were too chaotic at the time. I recognize the cooperation of my boys and the encouragement from my husband and others. My assumption is that anyone could do this with their kids, given the same support.

My hope is that having this attitude about our success enables it to remain organic, growing and changing, and capable of being broken down by God into fertilizer for future growth.

How would this look with failures? (Kudos to you if you’re still reading! Hang in there, we’re almost done!)

Failures can be turned into little grave markers that we plant in our yard. The last 5K I ran felt like an ugly failure. Since the previous 5K, I had gained about 10 lbs. I had trained some, but not very diligently. I was uncomfortable and frustrated. And I haven’t run a 5K since.

Have I turned that failure into a grave marker? Have I set it up in my memory as an RIP to my running habits? Maybe. I’m planning on signing up for another 5K in a couple weeks. But…I haven’t actually signed up yet. I’ve been running, but I feel really embarrassed about my last race, and I’m pretty sure I will have my worst time yet.

I think I’ve immortalized my failure somewhat. I need to turn it into back into small pieces. The 5K was hard because I had gained weight, not because I’m an illegitimate runner. I had gained weight because of lots of poor eating decisions compounded into each other. Also I had a stressful year and I’m older, so my metabolism is even worse than before, which I didn’t realize was possible.

Lord, help me to put that failure in the compost bin, so you can break it down and use it as fertilizer in the future. Running 5Ks is a way of keeping myself motivated to be healthy; it’s not always effective, but at least it’s me trying!

I would like to turn that failure into a linear success story. To chart the breaking down and the growth. But that’s not my job. God’s job is to tend his garden, and he is in charge of how the compost is created. His way is usually undercover, slow, and mysterious.

It can take years to turn our experiences, especially our failures, into compost. But that nourishment is so much richer than a book you can buy at the store or a 45 minute podcast. Lord God, use your organic process to make us the kind of soil where your word can produce a good crop.

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

Matthew 13:8

2 thoughts on “Failure is like compost

  1. Allie! Lost my breath at the explanation of breaking down successes and failures, instead of making them definitive markers. Deep wisdom that I will be thinking about for days. And I hope you do another 5k! ❤️


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