NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Mistakes” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Many of my older clients are disturbed by what they see as lost opportunities, wrong choices, wasted years. Even my younger clients, some only in their mid-twenties, often compare themselves to their peers and find their own lives wanting – they’ve missed the boat, time and opportunity have gone on without them, they will never catch up.
As these troubled men and women describe the mistakes they have made, they turn their faces downward, their eyes sometimes glistening with tears, tones of anguish or bitterness in their voices. What emanates from them is shame and regret.
They may have rationalized that “Everything happens for a reason,” but they only half believe it; what possible good has come from these errant decisions, these preventable losses? Or perhaps their friends and families have attempted to console them by explaining, “you didn’t know what you didn’t know.” But this truism seldom provides relief because they can often retort, “But I did know! I knew it was a mistake and I did it anyway!”
I, too, have a catalog of such mistakes: Relationships that I knew early on could not work but held onto anyway, hoping against hope. More than a decade of toiling away as a tech writer when I knew I should have been writing something else. Disastrous financial errors anyone with common sense would have avoided. Medical decisions that nearly got me killed. The list is long.
I understand my clients’ feelings of shame and regret and the anger they direct at themselves. But in recent years I have also, mostly, moved past these emotions. I have found that mistakes, while I may wish I had never made them, have redeeming qualities and (as a former girlfriend once said about me and my redeeming qualities), they are redeeming.
When I talk to clients about their regrets and their shame, I encourage them to avoid the trap of victimhood, to see obstacles, even those they have themselves created, as challenges. Mistakes become, in the words of another old friend, “just another AFGO.” Introducing this acronym (Another F***ing Growth Opportunity) generally gets a laugh, but it also articulates a mix of resentment and humor that helps reorient us to the positive change that can emerge from negative experiences – even from our mistakes.
I’m fortunate in having been guided to a profession where my personal mistakes are often redeemed not only by learning from them, but also by being able to pass on to others what I have gleaned. When it is clear that one of my mistakes echoes a client’s, I may talk about what I’ve done, what I have lost, and what I eventually gained. “Maybe I can save you 20 or 30 years,” I might add.
I talk about the errors in my relationships that now enable me, often, to help refocus a marriage that might have gone awry, or to end one that may have lingered for years in a barely tolerable state. I recount the “dead-end” career paths I’ve been on, and how an unanticipated benefit of drifting has been to understand firsthand the many contexts my clients work in. When it seems appropriate, I also describe the financial and medical errors that led to my becoming a healer and that also force me to keep on healing even as friends my age consider retiring.
I also speak in more general terms about the Hero’s Journey, the carrot-on-a-stick inducement my own therapist held in front of me in the dark times. I explain how the protagonists in nearly every hero story are beset by bad decisions, but that only through making those mistakes – and learning from them – can they traverse the path between not-quite-a-hero and truly heroic; their mistakes are a necessary part of the journey. This arc is succinctly illustrated in the movie Groundhog Day, in which the weather man protagonist, played by Bill Murray, literally makes the same mistakes over and over, trapping him in a single 24-hour period, until he starts to experiments, to learn, to grow as a person, and is finally set free.
Each time I am able to aid someone through insights I would not have had if I’d sidestepped my mistakes, the errors of judgment become less like pain and more like small sacrifices I unwittingly made so I could help someone else. This process is alchemical, turning the lead in my life into gold so that I can give it away.