For those of you who don’t know it yet, I have a unique family. Leif is my life partner. He works as a supervisor for Ottawa County Parks and is on beach patrol every weekend during the summer. Yeah, hard assignment, right? I also have a significant daughter Brigid. Brigid is Leif’s niece but he is really her surrogate dad. Her own father took off after she was born and Leif stepped in and took over a lot of her care. Leif and I have Brigid every night. So the three of us are a pretty unconventional family. And when I’m lucky one of my boys will join us. Alex is 19 and Jackson is 22 and they also live here in Grand Haven.
So last year Brigid got two miniature frogs for her birthday from our neighbor Marylou. They were living in an enclosed Plexiglas container into which you drop four pellets of food twice a week. Well, unlike this summer, last summer had days that were actually hot. On one of those days Leif was worried that the frogs would get to hot and start to cook, so he put them in the refrigerator.
Really. The next day – when he remembered that he had put the frogs in the refrigerator – he discovered that they weren’t moving. He felt pretty bad about this but it was clearly too late to do anything differently so he dumped the frogs into the toilet. He hit the flusher and just as the water started to swirl, the frogs started trying to swim – and continued to try as they were swept cleanly away. Leif made a mistake.
What about an example a little more close to home? I used to work at Fruitport Dry Cleaners while I was going to college. It was a great job because there was very little activity. I would bring in my homework and then have to deal with the occasional annoyance of customers. One Saturday when noon came around, I closed the shop and went home. A few hours later the owner called me up wondering what in the world the problem was – since the shop was supposed to be open until 6pm. To this day I don’t remember what made me believe it was time to go home. But I do remember how mortified I felt. I was embarrassed and humiliated and certain I would never be forgiven by my employer. I wanted nothing more than to die right then and there and never have to face anyone again for the rest of my life. To my young, hyper-responsible self, this was as close to the end of the world as I had ever experienced. I made a mistake.
Sadly, mistakes are hereditary. Have any of you have ever put liquid dish soap in the dishwasher? Exactly ten years ago, my son Jackson called me from the house where he was babysitting to say, “I have a problem. I wanted to do a really good job and clean the dishes…” I knew what was coming next. To make matters worse the only thing he could find in the house to clean up was a swifter – what ever happened to the good old fashioned mop?
So I brought him a mop – and a wet vac – and listened to him ask over and over again, “How was I supposed to know?” Well, he wasn’t supposed to know. He did what he thought he was supposed to do. He did not get the results he expected. He will do it differently next time – and he’s got a great story he can laugh about for the rest of his life. He made a mistake.
If there’s one thing that unites us in common humanity, it has to be the fact that we all make mistakes. No one is immune. Even the historical Buddha had a period when he made the mistake of over-compensating for his luxurious upbringing by becoming an ascetic and starving himself. He literally tortured himself in the name of spirituality. That’s a pretty big mistake. But it was only because he made this mistake that he was able to find the middle way between the extremes of luxury and austerity. Mistakes are not a bad thing; they are the food for our spiritual journey.
We all make mistakes. Big ones, small ones. In fact mistakes make the best stories don’t they? And they make for the best learning experiences. Mistakes are part of being human. Al Franken said, “Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it’s a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from.” So not only are mistakes not something to be ashamed of, they are something to be embraced!
When was the last time you sat and reflected with joy upon the mistakes you have made in your life? The run of the mill mistakes and the great big whoppers? Were they exciting? Were they fun? Did you laugh at yourself? Or did you hang your head in shame? How do you view your mistakes? Are they learning opportunities …or proof of your imperfection? Do you recognize the value of mistakes… or feel instead the need to blame somebody – yourself or someone else – when they happen?
If you’re still playing the blame game, then maybe you haven’t quite figured out yet what a mistake is. You see, you can’t help making mistakes – if you’re doing anything at all. We don’t do mistakes on purpose – that’s the whole point. They’re only mistakes in retrospect.
Each of us faces countless times during the day when decisions that require some kind of assessment and response have to be made. Big decisions, little decisions. We make them based on what we think will result. If the thing happened that we expected to happen, we don’t give it another thought. But if something else happens, then we realize – oops! I made a mistake.
And the good news is that’s perfectly okay! Here’s the thing. We always need to be aware that we MAKE mistakes – we are not mistakes ourselves.
We are NOT Mistakes
I was a spunky kid! I hated my kindergarten teacher Miss Peters. But my first grade teacher Mrs. McKenzie was like Mrs. Butterworth and Captain Kangaroo all rolled up in one. She loved me and I would have done anything to try to impress her. One day we were joining the kindergarten class to watch a movie. I must have been feeling pretty full of myself because I decided to have a comic moment. When Miss Peters asked if we were ready, I jovially said, “No.”
But Miss Peters didn’t think I was funny at all. She scanned the room with her dark heart and her evil eyes and asked who said it. And my classmates – ratted me out! Then she sent me to my room to wait, horrified, for Mrs. McKenzie to come in and discover what mayhem I had almost wrought upon the entire class. The problem was that I didn’t have my grown up perspective and I didn’t know it wasn’t a big deal. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t feel like I had made a mistake – I felt like I WAS a mistake.
It took me a long time to accept my own imperfection and to come to terms with my faults and my flaws. I used to carry around a lot of shame that made me believe I was a mistake. I ended up in abusive relationships that reinforced the idea that I was a mistake. The mistakes I made that led me into those relationships were just further evidence that I was a mistake. There is nothing more debilitating and unproductive in the whole world than believing you are a mistake.
Because if you are a mistake, you can’t do anything to make things better. If, on the other hand, we make mistakes, we can always take the next step in creating a better outcome. When we realize that we only made a mistake, we become empowered to change our life for the better. And if we can change our own life, we can change the world.
I made a mistake thinking I was a mistake. It turns out I am more precious than even I can comprehend. And so are you. So here’s mantra I want you to learn and use: I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them.
Now can you learn to relax in that knowledge and receive the grace that is yours to give yourself? Because when it comes to recognizing our common humanity, to recognizing the inherent dignity of every human being, we absolutely have to start with our self. Self-compassion comes from the recognition that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When we are aware of our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal. When we can claim our own worth, we can deeply value and appreciate others, recognizing that pain and disappointment are part of the shared human experience. Compassion toward our own mistakes leads us to extending compassion to others who also make mistakes.
Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds
Jesus told a parable about the Farmer who planted a field and was standing in it when he noticed weeds. The workers wanted to pull up the weeds but the Farmer made the absolutely crazy decision not to, adding that the weeds would be burned at harvest time. In this story, Jesus points us to a truth found in all wisdom traditions – that we have the seeds of both wheat and weeds within us.
I have learned, rather painfully, that I can do good and I can do bad – and what’s more – I can’t always tell the difference. Sometimes I have the best of intents, and I still manage to hurt someone I love. Sometimes I go out of my way to do a good deed, and only end up causing more of a mess than there was before I got involved. But then again, things that didn’t go the way I thought they would way back when have led in strange and amazing ways to many of the wonderful outcomes I’m experiencing today.
Like the mistakes we wish we had never made, each of us carries within us parts of our self that we view as weeds. We wish we could just yank out that part of our being and throw it into the furnace. But the parable cautions us not to. It says we have to learn to be patient with our self, to see our self as a field in which all of our life is in balance and to remove even a part of us that is ill is to pull with it a part that is healthy.
Each one of us does the best we can at any particular moment not knowing what the outcome will be.
A mistake is only declared when I stand in judgment over some past action. And I am not equipped to make such a judgment – not about the actions you have taken and not about the actions I have taken. My time frame is too short, my perspective too limited, my disposition too impatient to see the fullness in the growth of the field. To appreciate the harvest yet to come.
You see, you can’t set out to make a mistake. A mistake is only a mistake in retrospect – through a lens different than the one you use right now. And that lens will change over time. So who are you and who am I to say anything is a mistake or not? Well, putting dish soap in a dishwasher does seem to be a bona fide mistake, but you get my drift.
Now, a precautionary word. Embracing our mistakes does not give us license to do anything we please. Sometimes we make a conscious choice to act out of anger or envy or greed, knowing even as we choose our action that someone will be hurt. Now we might want to claim later that we made a mistake – but that kind of action is not a mistake at all. Mistakes require a good intent – a desire to do what is right. And so we are invited to act with courage the best we can today – knowing that even with the best of intentions we will make mistakes.
So what do we do? If we are to be whole we must live with the knowledge that we are both good and bad. And then we do our best. We decide intentionally that we will not live in judgment of others or our self. Instead, we choose to live. And if we are going to live, we will inevitably make mistakes. Jim Carrey delivered the graduation speech at the Maharishi University of Management this year. He said that he learned many great lessons from his father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
The trouble is that we tend to amplify the mistakes and forget the successes, which creates such a heavy burden of guilt for so many of us. And just when we thought we let go of that last mistake and forgave our self, something happens that triggers those old scripts and we find we’re beating ourselves up all over again. So instead of replaying our mistakes in our heads over and over again, I suggest we all make a list of our successes – and start playing them over and over in our head – when things are going well and especially when they’re not.
So instead of always having a list of mistakes we can turn to in blame, we have an automatic treasure trove of reminders of all the good things we have done in our life. Redirecting our thoughts to what is positive and life giving is a very Buddhist practice. When we claim our true Self or the Buddha nature within us, it grows. If we focus on the mistakes and the errors, our sense of failure and incompetence grows. If we dwell on any thought, that thought grows and grows. So we can consciously turn our hearts around and dwell upon the positive in ourselves, the purity, the goodness, the source of that unconditional love that seeks to serve others. And when we can forgive our own faults and focus on our own goodness and kindness, we can do the same with other people. We can dwell upon their goodness and watch it grow.
This is what Buddhists call kamma – an intentional action. The way we think about life, the way we speak about life, what we do with life. And it really is up to us what we do with our life. It is not up to some supernatural being somewhere who says whether we will be happy or not. Our happiness is completely in our hands, in our power. This is what Buddhists mean by kamma.
So what if we decided to live in happiness instead of fear? How different would our lives be if we celebrated the fact that we all make mistakes and stopped playing it safe? The willingness to risk making a mistake comes when we finally let go of fear and embrace the possible. Mistakes prove that we are creative enough to do something besides what we have always done before. They mean that we are living a life rich in creativity and courage that we have the audacity to believe in ourselves and in the people around us.
In the book Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers there is this pertinent quote: “If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t doing anything worth a damn.”