One Big Mistake
Without making mistakes, there is no way to learn. If you can learn from your mistakes, then you have already transformed garbage into flowers.
–-Thich Nhat Hanh
On some level, you’re probably making a mistake right now. So am I. But knowing that cannot be a justification for a life lived halfway, for a moment half expressed, for a child half hugged. Never withhold.
[August 19, 2022]
I could feel a little tremor in my feet as they bobbed up and down on the thinly-carpeted floor of the third grade classroom.
There, in burnt sienna colored pencil was my multiplication timed test grade, neatly printed in the upper right hand corner of the ditto sheet. “99%” it read. “-1.”
“I missed one,” I thought.
I never missed one.
I always got hundreds. I had an unimpeachable winning streak on timed third grade math exams.
No more. I had failed. Not, “Oh, I did pretty good, I only missed one.” Failed.
I thought of this experience this morning while trying not to peel out from our apartment complex parking lot, baby in tow. We were late. Rather, we were late because I was late. Lizzie, Matthew and I were on our way to tour a local day care facility for the kiddo, but I was about to drive us to the wrong location because I was sure I knew where it was, and I didn’t need to waste time or my diminished cell phone battery life looking up the address.
I wasn’t having a good 24 hours already. I’d forgotten to wash some sheets that Matthew spit up on, and I’d also forgotten we were out of his current size of diapers, necessitating a run to the Yukon WalMart at an unholy hour.
I felt sweat brim on my forehead as I shifted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat while my carefully constructed fantasy world of being SuperDad was shaking, cracking, tumbling, plummeting.
We’re late. We’re not going to get a tour. A spot’s gonna go to another kid. No day care for you. I’ll have to reduce hours at work to help watch you. I’ll get disciplined, maybe fired. Dear God.
Sorry, buddy, something will work out.
Gosh, those sheets.
Arg, the diapers.
Yeesh, the missed problem on that stupid math test.
I’d like to apologize for being a catastrophic worrier, a rigorous planner, an obsessive thinker, and a prophesier of doom.
I like to moonlight as a chill, bearded dude who plays the ukulele in the sunshine, but on this blog, the cat’s outta the bag. It’s all a ruse. Most of the time, I’m wound tighter than a magnet coil.
It’s not that I make a ton of mistakes, either. I usually keep my bases covered. But like a lot of people, I am heavily invested in that fact, safeguarding my sense of self as someone who doesn’t often make a lot of mistakes.
Nobody really likes getting things wrong, I don’t think. But I do know a lot of folks who seem to beat themselves up mercilessly for what amounts to minor transgressions, tiny lapses of judgment, or the occasional grumpiness.
We’re human. Against all our protests, we’re gonna eff up sometimes. Or at the very least, we’ll have a hiccup in judgment or outward behavior.
Lizzie recently read a good book called “The Upside of Stress.” In it, the author seeks to redefine stress as a mental and physical response someone feels when something they care about is at stake.
Take the lateness to the daycare for example. Why was I stressed? I legitimately thought we would be denied a tour. (We weren’t, by the way.) Granted, my out-of-control worry about the potential fallout was extreme. But ask any working parent about the possibility of not having daycare, and you’ll see how it quickly prompts some rat-in-a-trap thinking.
But what about that math test? Why was I stressed? On the one hand, the book‘s definition fits. Something I cared about was at stake.
But it wasn’t a dumb test. It was my ego. My “I-don’t-make errors-ness.”
It was my very sense of self. The little CEO in my head who screams at his employees, “For the love of all things, don’t make a mistake, don’t take a risk you might regret, or you might go to pieces.”
For whatever reason, some level of perfectionist thinking can creep into all of us from time to time. That’s all fine and good when you’re doing things that you naturally find success in, even if they’re pathetically easy.
Here’s a silly example. If going to Showbiz Pizza, hitting up the skeeball machine with a roll of tokens, and climbing up the ramp to slam dunk the ball in the “50” is something you can get away with, you probably will feel foolish if you miss one.
If you’re a little like me, this is maybe what you’ve actually been doing: Much of the time, you stick to life’s timed math tests, hoping you pop out hundred after hundred. You avoid things you aren’t naturally good at because, honestly, a lot of the time, you really don’t want to work that hard and endure the growing pains of life because they cause discomfort. Or, you don’t want to muscle up the grit it takes to occasionally throw an elbow in a tough old world and risk pissing someone off. To that end, you might (also) be a people pleaser who is good at placating, but not as skilled at hard truths, and you’d really prefer to avoid a conflict or a contentious conversation at any cost, thank you very much.
But what happens when you’ve had a run of easy success at the skeeball machines of life, and something legitimately hard comes along to demand your time and command your attention?
That’s why I keep coming back to ideas from the Buddhist tradition. Because even though much of what has been discovered and shared is about reminding us human folks of our inherent goodness, it also throws some cold water in implying that we don’t just get a participation trophy for life.
And honestly, a lot of times, I really need to hear that.
There are times when we should be told: you’re doing great, take it easy, give yourself a break, clock out early and enjoy the weather, I’ll get this tab and you can make it up next time.
And there are less fun times when we need to be told: you really ought to floss more regularly, I really need to see more effort from you, you hurt my feelings, that wasn’t your best work, I feel let down, you’re wrong.
To paraphrase something the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, we’re already absolutely perfect as we are – and we could certainly use some improvement.
Take that, sense of self.
Buddhism sees the construction of a person a little differently than most other philosophies or religions. Instead of an immortal self or soul that inhabits a body, it says we are basically a collection of aggregates – interlocking pieces of the whole, but without the same kind of “CEO” at the center. The fancy word for this is “anatman”, an old Pali word meaning basically “no self”.
“What?! No self? How are you even a person then?” I can hear some people wondering.
The long and short of it is … it’s complicated, I’m learning.
To quote extensively from a recent article in the Buddhist journal “Lion’s Roar”, writer and editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod argues, gently, that “no self” is just a kind of shorthand, and a helpful one at that.
“It doesn’t mean there’s no self at all,” he writes. “We exist, obviously. It means no mistaken self. It means that the type of self we deluded beings believe in doesn’t exist. In fact, this mistaken idea of self is the very problem. That’s why the truth of no self—no mistaken self—is the best self-help of all.
“What is this false sense of self, what is often called ego?” he continues. “It’s the mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent entity with some sort of unchanging personal essence at our core. This self doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction we create based on our ignorance about the true nature of ourselves and reality. But because we believe this self exists, we struggle to serve and protect it, and cause ourselves and others endless suffering in the process. It is the false organizing principle of our lives.”
And it’s precisely this idea of “no self” that is helping me with my SuperDad problem.
People love good stories. Narratives, often featuring ourselves as the heroes, come to define our lives. A coherent narrative becomes a map for the type of person we think of ourselves as. It’s the architecture of our self-worth.
But how many stories do we carry that are unhealthy? Some that – however accurate – might be part of that narrative, but that we would do better to simply jettison?
For me, the idea of making mistakes has always been terrifying. I don’t know how it started, but I’m on a mission to drop the narrative, lest an anxious parent shape an anxious child. And what I am learning, over and over, often with great levels of internal distress over trivial matters, is that I’m gonna make a lot of mistakes as a dad.
And that might be a gift far greater than a string of perfect math test grades.
The Japanese Zen teacher Ehiei Dogen is frequently paraphrased as saying something like, “Life is one continuous mistake.” (He didn’t actually say that, but his writing on the matter is in tune with that kind of pithy maxim in a way that’s close enough for rock and roll, if you ask me.) It’s not nihilistic to say that shit happens. It’s pretty realistic, actually. And it’s not fatalistic to say that we’re going to make lots and lots of mistakes in our lives.
The good news is that just as everything arises, everything passes away. To quote a song from the Plum Village Zen tradition, “Clouds come and clouds go / My mind is a clear blue sky.” What’s up becomes down, and vice versa. And that horrible thing I did, or failed to do, is only going to cause enough distress until the lesson hits like a diamond bullet in the center of the psyche.
So my new narrative, and practice, is to simply try to move cheerfully from one mistake to the next, with a spirit of stubborn and increasingly hard-won confidence that effort, diligence, skillfulness, and good humor will help any situation.
Or, to cite a phrase from Chinese antiquity that’s become a kind of short hand for certain Zen attitudes: Fall down 9 times, get up 10.
Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh again:
“Since we are human beings, we make mistakes. We cause others to suffer. We hurt our loved ones, and we feel regret. But without making mistakes, there is no way to learn. If you can learn from your mistakes, then you have already transformed garbage into flowers. Very often our mistakes come from our unskillfulness, and not because we want to harm one another. I think of our behavior in terms of being more or less skillful rather than in terms of good and bad. If you are skillful, you can avoid making yourself suffer and the other person suffer. If there’s something you want to tell the other person, then you have to say it, but do so skillfully, in a way that leads to less rather than more suffering.”
And at the end of the day, getting the suffering out and being of benefit is the whole of Buddhist teaching – Maybe the whole of life, or at least my life right now.
So what helps?
Having something of a consistent sitting meditation practice, as ill-disciplined as I can be with it sometimes, has been helpful.
Most helpful from that process – I’m gradually learning the fact that I don’t have to be bossed around by my thoughts, which loosens my grip around my ego when I mess up or make a mistake. (Hint: it also works when everything in your life is going super well, and you start to think that you’re a little more awesome, perfect, infallible, or particularly immune to criticism than you might actually be.)
Finding the gap between what the brain and body needs me to do at every moment allows for a bit more intention in activity. If there’s negative self talk, or I get wrapped up in my own expectations too tightly, or I ruminate over those pesky mistakes (especially if they’re really, really, really inconsequential), that gap allows for a more careful handling of situations.
It’s kind of like holding my baby when he’s fussing: Gentle but firm touch, support what needs to be supported, and don’t let him fall out of your arms. But – again – gentle.
And holding the baby in my arms, I get to hold the future with sturdy but supple hands. That’s kind of a miracle. Ordinary, but miraculous anyhow.
May I treat my thoughts and intentions as gently.
May I allow for – and not shrink from – a cold splash of reality when I really eff up or when I need to put in some serious elbow grease.
May I, frankly, drop the pretense and not stress out about the stupid stuff.
And if Matthew misses one, two, three, or fifty on his timed math test, it’ll be OK. His mistakes are proof that he’s trying.
Like Thich Nhat Hanh said, It’s a way to transform the compost into flowers.
And that’s a spectacular way to bloom in the midst of this rare, wonderful, statistically improbable, and completely precious gift of life as a human being in this very, very, very vast and otherwise inhospitable universe.
Which is also something of a miracle.
Make no mistake.
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