Many Excellent Mistakes

I was a mess. At least, that’s what it felt like to me. I had had high hopes and here I was in the midst of the depths. I had thought I had some of life figured out, but I was struggling to keep my head above water. Breath and a pulse were about the only things that I had not messed up, and that’s because those are autonomic actions that were not my choice. It felt to me as if everything else was one big jumbled pile of problems of my own creation.

Perhaps all young people go through such moments of misery. Perhaps everyone has to have times in which it seems that the world is not under their control. Perhaps it is essential that at some point we sit in the mess we feel we’ve made and just stew in it until we learn something from it.

The particulars of my mess may differ from other’s, but I suspect that there are similarities as well. I had been eager to get away from the place where I was raised; I was going ‘out west’ to follow a dream; I was young, poor, impressionable—a combination that lots of folks have encountered. I fancied myself a musician, and in those days there was something of a motto amongst musicians—“sex, drugs, and rock and roll”—it’s a catchy phrase, but a poor life philosophy in practice. I was not moving in a good direction and my decision-making process was filled with confusion. Along the way I had made what we would now call “poor life choices.” I believe that’s the phrase. That makes them sound a lot more calm and rational than they actually feel at the moment you’re making them. Surely there are other words that come to my mind: mistakes, stupidity, ignorance, foolishness.

I was now back ‘home,’ although home had been radically and forever altered in my time away. The house in which I had been raised had been sold. My parents had divorced. I had returned to nothing that was familiar, nothing as it was, nothing that seemed stable anymore.

To top it off, I was unemployed. I had been laid off the day before Thanksgiving, and now I faced the prospect of a long, cold winter without much money. There were bills to pay, and ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ was the most important bit of financial planning that I could come up with. I was living hand to mouth with mostly empty hands.

In the midst of this mess I recall a conversation with my mother. I was bemoaning my situation. I was a bundle of emotions, fears, and anxieties. I was stressed beyond my skills to cope. I was recounting every wrong turn and every dead end that I had taken to that point. I was reliving all of my errors at once. I was looking at myself and had absolutely no idea of what to do or where to turn. I had been raised with the idea that God had a plan for my life, but it felt as if I was doing everything within my power to thwart it. If this was God’s plan, then it needed to go back to the drawing board—at least, that was my perspective. One night when I was feeling about as awful as I thought possible, I was telling all of this to my mom.

Then, perhaps from her own recent experiences of divorce and distress, my mom asked me an incredibly important question: “Would you do any of that again?” I have to admit that the thought had never occurred to me. On the surface it seemed patently absurd. I could hear the answer forming in my mind. Of course, I wouldn’t do any of that again! Why would I want to go back through all that? I was trying my best to see a way beyond it. The last thing in my mind would be to return to any of those choices or retake any of those paths. I was thinking all of that, but an emphatic ‘No!’ was all that came out of my mouth.

Then without any hint of judgment or chastisement mom said, ‘“Then those were lessons you were going to learn anyway. If you don’t repeat them, then you got what you needed.”

There are words that we hear that take time to sink all the way into our consciousness. These were such words. These were words that would take hold in me and be revisited time and time again. I had been expecting the rebuke that a parent would have been in line to offer, but I got something else. I was ready for a warning about poor choices and poor friends, but what I received was wisdom. A little gem that has carried me through all manner of messes since then.

Life is messy—sometimes we make it so and sometimes the messes just show up. None of us is completely clean. None of us gets through without some mistakes. Perhaps we each feel as if we’ve made more than our share—I know that’s often how I have felt. My messes looks way worse to me than anyone else’s; I guess because I am so involved with them.

Mom’s wisdom in that statement has carried me through all the messes and mistakes I’ve made since then. It gave me a perspective that said I did not have to be perfect; I do not have to get everything right all the time. I am going to make mistakes again in the days to come. I have a lot to learn. Mistakes are the method by which I have learned the most. I do not recall all the times I got it all right, but I am keenly aware of the times I’ve done it “wrong.”

Kennon Callahan has a phrase I like to use; he encourages us to make an “excellent mistake.” It is a mistake that yields a great lesson. In fact, the size of the mistake is proportional to the value of what can be garnered from it. That was what my mother was telling me. I knew I had made some major mistakes, but they proved to be most excellent lessons for life. I have made many “excellent mistakes” since that conversation—not necessarily by intention; but I have done so without excessive anxiety about the results, without excessive anger at myself or others, and without excessive angst that I may be wrong.

It was only one simple question—“would you do that again?” But she offered it at just the moment when I could listen and hear and learn a lesson that has lasted a lifetime.

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