The spiritual practice of making mistakes


I am beginning to get the idea that making mistakes, being wrong, is an important spiritual discipline. I picked up on this when I was traveling to Congo and making a lot of mistakes, some cultural, some quite blatantly personal. I learned to expect to be wrong quite often. I cheerfully let my ego take a backseat and realized that the education you get from errors is so valuable that you shouldn’t try too hard to avoid them. Nothing ventured–no embarrassment risked–nothing gained.

Yesterday I counted four mistakes in one day and realized that they all enriched me considerably.

First there was the not-quite-resolved fight with my husband. It had erupted two days earlier. I had gotten on my high horse about a serious mistake he had made, which I was quite certain threatened our relationship. By the next day I’d gotten down off the high horse, and we were already working on a compromise that promised to be workable, a win (sort of)/win (sort of) solution. But I still thought he was “wrong.” It had been his mistake, after all, not mine.

That night he had a dream, which he reported to me (sheepishly, not triumphantly) yesterday morning. He was driving and got pulled over by a cop, although he didn’t know what he’d done wrong. He rolled down the window. The cop leaned in and told him that he had done nothing wrong.

We laughed about the dream and I realized it was true. He had made an honest mistake but he’d done nothing wrong. I was the one who had been wrong, assigning blame and judgment so sanctimoniously.

Second, I realized in the middle of the church service that I had wrongly criticized someone in a conversation with a mutual friend. I made a point of retracting the criticism when I talked to the friend after the service.

Third, in the congregational prayer time at the end of the service I brought up a difficulty with a financial transaction for which, I thought, the church’s bank was responsible–kind of an iffy thing to bring up for prayer but the transaction involved scholarship money for our Congolese partners. It turned out that the church’s bankers were sitting right behind me. I suppose everybody but me knew the church banked with the credit union run by this couple–at least everybody who had been around at least as long as we have been, or longer. Nevertheless, I overcame my embarrassment, apologized for my ignorance, and we had a helpful conversation about how to address the problem. This conversation would not have taken place without my public blunder. But talk about quick and painful answers to prayer. Yikes!

Finally, in the afternoon I sat down to make another attempt at reading a book that had put me off earlier. I have in fact rather loudly criticized this author as a bad writer, although she is undoubtedly a wise person. This time, after I got through the first 10 pages, I was riveted. Underlining every other paragraph. Delightfully wrong again!

You can’t avoid making mistakes. It’s a matter of what you do with them afterward. You can defend your ego by refusing to admit them. You can punish yourself for them, but a bruised ego swells up just like a coddled one does. Or you can learn from them.

The lesson is not, or not totally, the prevention of future errors of the same kind. You may make the same mistakes over and over again. (Mine often involve a rush to judgment.) The lesson is the letting-go of forgiveness, the release of ego that opens doors, breaking down barriers between you and others and between you and divine grace.

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