It has been rightly said that the only moment we have is the present moment. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future has not yet arrived and so is beyond our reach. It seems so obvious, so simple, yet how much time do we spend fixating on the past or dreaming of the future? How often does “if only I had…” cause us to completely miss new opportunity when it arises? Certainly there are things to be learned from past mistakes, but those learning opportunities aren’t a bottomless well. Most mistakes we make are relatively small and so offer a paucity of learning. Even our major mistakes only offer a few lessons. If we find ourselves ruminating about something months or even years after it has happened, we aren’t trying to learn, we are trying to avoid something.
I find it helpful when I am stuck to remember that the “why?” question is most often not very helpful. Most often we cannot know with any degree of certainty why things happen. When we allow ourselves to get stuck there, it may well be that we are actually trying to avoid moving forward. Why something happened or why someone did something is much less important that what we will do next given what has happened. What is the lesson in our experience? What is it trying to teach us? How can we avoid whatever mistakes we made in the future? We need to ask these questions not to berate or otherwise punish ourselves, but to learn. Once we have learned, it is time to move on.
The truth is that, no matter what a perfectionist might tell you, mistakes are a normal part of life. I believe that every experience, positive or negative, arises to teach us something. Our goal shouldn’t be perfection, it should be learning and growth. There are very few activities in which a mistake means we don’t get to try again, and most of those can be avoided. Mistakes are much less critical outside the arenas of sky diving and bungee jumping! Learn, and then move on. Don’t let life pass you by as you seek a perfection that doesn’t exist!
I saw an interview on one of the news channels of a corona virus denier. The man said that he didn’t really believe the virus was any worse than the flu. When the reporter countered with the fact that (at that time) there had been over one hundred fifty thousand deaths in The United States, the interviewee responded “I don’t agree with that number.” This one statement reflects the heart of the problem – facts are not opinions.
You can’t disagree with a fact, at least not if you are a rational human being. Perhaps more accurately, you can’t disagree with a fact without dire consequences. If you disagree with the fact of gravity, it will not end well for you. When presented with a fact, our job isn’t to agree or disagree, but to respond. We need to ask ourselves how we are called to respond in light of the fact. Pretending the fact doesn’t exist will only lead to foolish choices. Sadly, at this point in time we see many people making just such foolish choices and paying the price for them. Still the fact deniers continue. Maybe that’s the appeal of denying facts. Maybe you feel quite wise and powerful until you don’t, but then you’re dead so you avoid responsibility for your foolishness. That’s a steep price to pay for a few seconds of delusional certainty.
I believe that part of the reason we see so many people eager to exchange opinion for fact is that we have, as a culture, bought into the idea that we have to be perfect. That idea is fiction, nothing more. We learn from making mistakes, and nobody comes into this world immune from mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, and to avoid them is to ensure than we learn nothing. It is uncomfortable to fail, sometimes profoundly so, but I have never had a failure that wasn’t a learning experience. Pretending that we have never failed reveals more about us that any success ever could.
Western culture tends to believe that history is linear. In truth, at least as far as our personal histories are concerned, it’s more accurate to believe they are circular. We keep returning to the scene of our trauma by recreating it with a new cast of characters and hoping it will turn out differently this time around. Of course it doesn’t and so we recast the play and have another go at it. Because we tend to choose that new cast because it resembles the original cast, the effort is doomed from the start.
Are you a heterosexual woman who finds herself repeatedly in relationships with a certain type of ruggedly good looking, athletic, rather narcissistic man who ends up treating you poorly and at times abusing you? Find the man in your past, likely in your family or very close to it, who fits that description and you will have found the reason you make the same “mistake” over and over. You will never succeed in your efforts because this kind of man is constitutionally incapable of treating you well. The excitement you feel when you meet another one of these guys isn’t attraction, it’s danger – but you have come to conflate the two. You have somehow come to associate danger and being treated poorly with being loved, and that simply isn’t true. Ultimately, the answer to “why does this keep happening to me?” lies in the bathroom mirror.
If we take an honest look at our history and discover we keep making the same mistakes, it’s a good time to pause and examine that tendency more deeply. We need to unpack our histories and discover the roots of our unhealthy tendencies so that we can sever the connections and start making better choices. We may well find that there is a part of us that doesn’t believe we deserve to be treated in a kind and loving manner, quite likely because we believe we have a horrific defect. We haven’t yet figured out that everyone has a defect they believe is horrific but that very few other people would notice if the owner of the defect didn’t keep pointing it out!
In truth, we all have skeletons in our closet. If we examine them and come to terms with them they will stop being problems. If we come to see that everyone has the odd bony inhabitant in their closet, we will stop feeling the need to hide ours. When we stop hiding ours, something decided different than showing them to everyone we meet, we will stop feeling compelled to replay the unsatisfactory parts of our collective past in the hopes that things will turn out differently this time. When that happens, Cowboy Bob won’t seem appealing any more. Imagine!
I believe we are living in a crucial, historic time. The opportunity is in front of us to, at long last, address racism in a substantial way. It will require deep listening, thoughtful dialogue, and a whole lot of deciding to let the little stuff go.
One thing about language that makes it alive and interesting is that it evolves very quickly. If you don’t believe that, listen to someone forty years older or younger than you are and notice how usage has changed. Notice how the trendy words or phrases they are using are different from the ones you are used to. If they are forty years older than you there is a good chance they seem silly and dated to you. If they are forty years younger than you there is a good chance you aren’t exactly sure what they are saying. Consider things your parents or grandparents say such as “cool” and how uncool it sounds to you. Consider that your children or grandchildren might say “sick” even when they aren’t. A few weeks ago I heard someone criticizing someone they heard using the term “woke.” They said, “nobody says woke any more!” Well, somebody just did and you just did. As that critic ages they will likely learn that it gets harder and harder to stay on the cutting edge of language.
Ellen DeGeneres was recently harshly criticized for using the expression “people of color,” which is apparently no longer acceptable. George Floyd was Black, so only Black people are the victims of racism? News to me. I must not be on the appropriate email list. I guess Ellen isn’t either, so I don’t feel quite so left out. How many times has the preferred term changed from Black, to African American and back again? On what date, precisely, did those changes occur? Why was I not informed? Where do I write to get the updates? What are we supposed to call people who are not White? Under what circumstances, when talking about racism, can we include everyone who is a victim of racism?
Most of us are well intended and want to say the right thing. I believe that a substantial number of White people want to change racism. If, however, we are going to get bogged down in eviscerating everyone who uses terminology we don’t agree with then we aren’t going to get anywhere. If we can’t say anything for fear we are going to say the wrong thing, then dialogue can’t happen. White people need to engage in deep listening and all people need to cut others a bit of slack. That’s how learning happens.