Oops by George Merrill

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There was an incident years ago, when my son was ten. I handled a situation with him poorly in a way that I have been not been able to completely forgive myself. When I think of it, I feel the sharp pain of remorse. He was needy and confused then and as we had recently moved, was trying to figure out his relationship with two of his new friends. When I look back, I can see that I didn’t get it – all the more ironic since I am a clergyman and psychotherapist. I treated his concerns casually. Rather than taking the matter more seriously and encouraging him to talk about it I didn’t hear what he was trying to tell me. It was a lost opportunity. Simply put, I blew it.

He has not forgotten it nor have I. Time and a frank discussion years later have alleviated much of the pain of that time for both of us. And even though I know that blaming myself is not helpful either for him or for myself, when I think about it I’ll still instinctively castigate myself for not getting it right.

I’ve often wondered why it is so difficult even though I may know God will forgive me, and for the most part my son has, that I find it so difficult to forgive myself. It’s as if I hold myself to impossible standards of perfection. I should never make mistakes. I’m supposed to get it right all the time. Even as I write that sentence it sounds absurd. As I think about it, there’s a perverse pride in such thinking. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m actually saying I’m perfect, or if not, I should be.

Getting it wrong, making mistakes of all kinds is so fundamental to the human experience that rites of forgiveness have been central to religious practices for centuries. For Catholics, there is the sacrament of confession and in Judaism, the observance of Yom Kippur. Both rites help penitents to own their failings, express their contrition with others, and to put things right with self, with God and our fellow man. Each of these rites has an implied assumption; not only am I never going to get it right every time, but my efforts are probably better spent in managing my mistakes with a combination of contrition and a gentle spirit.

I characterize my routine mistakes simply as ‘oops.’ These are the annoying glitches that insinuate themselves into daily life; the lost key, the grocery bag left at the market, missing receipts, forgetting to lock the door, stepping in dog doo and the like. I shrug, get irritated, mutter under my breath and feel relieved that no one else has noticed. After making the appropriate corrections, I go about my business as usual. To make case in point when I wrote about stepping in dog manure, I wrote it first as ‘dog dew.’ My wife said I was mistaken, that it was ‘dog doo’ that I stepped in. For a moment, I wasn’t sure I had it right and I felt slightly intimidated. I googled it. In fact, I had stepped in both.

Strangely, inadvertent mistakes (the one’s committed in total innocence, with not a hint of guile and even with good intentions) can go badly and cause pain to others as well as to one’s self.

Not getting it right can be a mortifying experience. People often remark that when they suddenly realize they’ve really gotten it wrong they wish they had died on the spot or that the ground would have opened up and swallowed them. That’s one powerful emotion.

Kathryn Schulz, in her thoughtful book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, tells a story of a mortifying incident suffered by a journalist friend of hers. He was a seasoned writer on environmental issues and attended a lecture by a prominent environmentalist.

She made a brilliant presentation although pessimistic in content. He noticed how although her prognostications for the future of the planet were grim, that she was also pregnant. In his write up he commented that she was pregnant indicating that what he saw was her affirmation of life despite the gloomy picture she painted of the future. His article was published, made first page news and was widely circulated. Great, except the presenter wasn’t pregnant. Forty years later and he was quoted as saying “Truth is, I’m still mortified when I talk about it.” It turned out the woman was gracious about it but the journalist could never quite forgive himself for an innocent mistake, kindly disposed as it was.

I suspect that deep down many of us are aware of our failings, but try hard to disown them because we ourselves are not easy with them. The result can be that we’re intimidated by people who come across to us as on top of their game, competent, all together. It’s as if their togetherness were a judgement on us. The word ‘loser’ that has become such a popular insult today I guess underscores the contemporary obsession that in order to be of any account, you have to always get it and be winners no matter what.

Regarding mistakes, a look at how scientists behave may be instructive for getting along with our mistakes more skillfully. Many scientific researchers will routinely publish results making them accessible to other scientists knowing full well that what they’ve put out there may be flawed. That’s part of the strategy. If flaws can be identified so much the better. In the long haul, they’ll stand better chances of getting their project right.

So, since we are never always going to get it all right, what do we do? Ask for help if our mistakes have been harmful to ourselves or others, if we can. If not, accept, shrug, forgive, and keep a sense of humor.

Remember, to air is human, to forgive, divine.

Oops!

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Joseph Irr says:

    In my home there is a plaque made by my daughter many years ago. It reads: “To Irr is Human”

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