Sin Boldly, Fail Dramatically

Anyone who knows much about the instigation of the Protestant Reformation knows that its leadership was not enacted by prim and prissy sorts. Martin Luther, besides being quite the rabble-rouser in the event, loved his beer, offended the all-powerful Church that was his employer and effectively, his owner, and married a rebel nun, with whom he had six children. His being credited with advocating that fallible humans should ‘sin boldly’ rather than live in denial of their mortal failings and inability to produce or buy redemption comes as little surprise in light of this life history. But in all of this there’s also more than a tiny hint of very useful everyday advice as well: thinking ourselves capable of perfection tends to stand in the way of getting anywhere close to it. Making mistakes is the only real way to learn and improve. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it enables us to get closer to our ideal of it and, if we’re really smart and lucky, to change and improve our concepts of perfection.photoOur failures do tend to cling to us. There would be no name for Schadenfreude, not even an inkling of its existence, if it weren’t for our feeling relief in and even reveling in, others’ mistakes and disasters; the more public their occurrence or exposure, the better chance of their (sometimes literally, in this digital age) going viral. But for every ninety-nine spectacular pratfalls, there is one person who, by dint of dusting herself off and jumping up with agile alacrity to redo the test and win the day, makes the fall look like a flashy prelude to a show-stopping grand finale that everyone will envy rather than ridicule. What makes this person enviable is not perfection but the ability to rise up from the ashes with new wisdom and determination, both gained from what was probably a whole series of dazzling falls in the process. Even more desirable is the one who manages to let us all in on the secret, admitting fallibility and mortality from the start and leaving the curtain wide open so that we can revel in the learning process with her before she ever hits the stage, can learn from her mistakes. This is a kind of brilliant generosity I have always admired.photoRisk. Taking risks means you will have bumps and bruises to ego and, possibly also, body. Taking none guarantees you will have a dull life and probably, a colorless soul. Worthwhile risks might conceivably include real danger: one can take chances that cost money, job, power, relationships, physical injury–life. More often, they will cost a measure of pride, and that’s something nearly all of us can afford to lose (and some probably should offload a ton or two of it). A policy I developed for myself when I was in college and such a fearful ninny that I would hardly have survived my undergraduate years let alone moved forward in any other part of life if I hadn’t finally forced it on myself, was to accept that whether I believed it or not in the moment, whatever it was that scared me probably wouldn’t kill me. Sounds silly to all who know how minor were the things that held me in utter terror, but the fear was real even if the danger was not. The adjunct rule I decided to apply to this idea was that if It (the risk of the moment) did kill me, it certainly wouldn’t bother me anymore.photoI may have worded these rules in a slightly tongue-in-cheek mode, but I conceived of them as an actual, practical reassurance that anything life hands to me I ought to be able to handle sufficiently. And that hey, if I don’t end up managing quite that well every time, I’ll make some meaningfully big mistakes, learn from them, and do better the next time. I’ve learned that I can’t be humiliated unless I allow myself to be–in truth, it’s strictly an internal experience when you really boil it down, and there’s nothing that says anyone or anything can force me to feel mortified if I refuse to do so. If I make enough mistakes along the way, I’ll get better and smarter to the degree that I’m unlikely to deserve anyone trying to humiliate me anyhow. Being wrong doesn’t necessarily mean burning because I’m flushed with embarrassment, let alone guaranteed burning in Hell; letting it get to me and not taking the opportunity for growth from it is the true error.

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