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.Our 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.Risk. 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.I 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.
I tend to believe that things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. Doesn’t mean I’m always going to enjoy or approve of either the process or the results–many things are hard to live through and accept in the average life. All the same, and even if it’s a touch fatalistic, I find a bit of useful equanimity in the idea that the greater balance will eventually prevail one way or another. Whether I can foresee or understand the outcome of any of life’s mysteries or not, this thought tempers my natural impatience just a little.
Would I rather that every loved one who has suffered or died had not? Of course! ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But even if I could choose such things, how can I know which way the universe will tilt in response? Might the unseen, unplanned measure of counterbalance damage other loves, other lives? Much as I fidget inwardly, pretending at god-like wisdom and magnanimity, the responsibility is truly far too great a burden for me to desire. I’m always pulled up short by intimations of an unwelcome butterfly effect.
Even in smaller and more mundane things, I dread to think too much on what might have been or how I would choose to make anything significantly different. The choice is so likely to hold hidden traps and snares that I can’t bear to imagine how dreadfully I might skew the universe awry with one misstep and would rather not carry the burden of it. So no matter how I may long for a difference in the moment, if there’s no obvious way for my intervention to have a positive on the outcome of events I will likely continue to flap my wings in a rather guarded fashion, hoping that anything I stir up will only join the stream, the current that flows toward the greater good, even if I can’t begin to see it yet. My inability to recognize the larger pattern doesn’t in any way prove that it isn’t there.So I watch and wait. But in the meantime I plan, always, to keep living. Moving forward is the only useful reality while I’m waiting for any additional facts to appear. And a much happier and more entertaining way to spend my time than in anxious huddling in corners. See you out there!
The Ides of March have passed once more, untroubled. Caesar falls but is replaced by another king, another president, another boss–and the world continues to rotate with a placid, almost stolid steadiness. Even Internal Revenue has accepted our tax return.When the seasons flow and while night and day continue to trot after each other without cease, the sky withholds and then sends down her rain, her sun, her snow–though all of this is change, it’s change in which we all comfortably believe, a future we feel safe to say we can predict. Prognosticators and seers and soothsayers have always wanted to believe–wanted us to believe–that they could cast the runes and fortune-tell what is to come. And even on the wings of simple faith, these are bound at times to be fulfilled. What we trust will come to be will be–when it will. The answer, an answer, always comes.
But what if the answer is not what we had hoped? How if we have built our plans on something we expect, the future we assume or even long to be? Lovely as the concept seems, small few are truly able to go about our day after the fact, chirpily singing ‘Que Sera, Sera‘ with sanguine calm.I’ve always had a little bit of fatalism about the whole thing–if Life ever throws me something I truly can’t handle, why then it’ll kill me, won’t it, and such things won’t matter to me when I’m dead. That’s a little fatuous and silly, of course, and no comfort at all when I think things are pretty awful.
All I can really say that keeps my armor fairly intact then is that if my faith in general is bound to what I’ve seen and my confidence that it will continue or return is that so far Life’s been kind to me. So far, what has happened has always led eventually to good and pleasing things in my world. As winter follows autumn and is supplanted next by spring, as day and night keep dawning and turning over to dark, one after another, I trust that the fallow times of my life will be pushed away by cycles of productivity. That weariness will be refreshed by energy; dread will be reversed by hope. That sorrow will return to joy and chaos or misdirection will remember its path or will find a whole new way.