Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's a Do-Over

--by Juliet

I like to think of mistakes quite literally as miss-takes, things gone awry. It implies the possibility of a do-over, something to be learned from, rather than regretted.

I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes, but I have very few regrets. In part, this is because I’m superstitious: I love the current version of my life so much that I fear what it might look like if I’d done even one thing differently.

Like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings triggering a tsunami, or whatever that theory actually says…What would my life be like if I’d gotten up the nerve to teach in Malawi? If I’d stayed in Spain with my Chilean lover? If I hadn’t married my now ex-husband…? These are turning points that make me look back and wonder, from time to time, what an alternate life would have been like. In my best moments I think it would have been a similarly wonderful life, just a different version. In my darkest moments, I feel like I made it this far only by the skin of my teeth....That’s when I thank my lucky stars that things turned out as they did, mistakes and all.

One of the hardest things for me as a parent was (and continues to be) letting my son make his own mistakes. We want our loved ones to learn from our experiences--and certainly our mistakes-- but everyone has to make their own errors to really learn from them, deep down.

I love watching a small child trying to master a new skill. They might get frustrated, even cry, but in general they’ll circle back around, trying again and again, and repeating mistakes until they finally get it right. Infants trying to walk --responding to the unique human imperative to pull themselves up and walk on their hind feet-- won’t stop just because they screw up the first hundred times. You might hold their pudgy little hands in yours, but they’re the ones who have to do the hard work and fall on their butts repeatedly, striving for bipedal balance. Eventually they’ll get it on their own – and when they do, their confidence soars, and they beam with pride and wonder.

Our mistakes teach us things. And not just mechanical things like walking, or reading, or riding a bike, but big things. Really big things.

It is, at least in part, by making stupid, thoughtless, even cruel mistakes that we learn compassion for others. Those cringe-worthy mistakes we’ve all committed can help us understand when we witness another person acting their meanest, lowest self. Our mistakes teach us how to ask forgiveness, and to forgive others. How to break hearts, and survive a broken heart.

In fiction, of course, mistakes, shame, regrets, and the possibility of redemption… these are all great grist for the writing mill. And as they say, all writing is, to some extent, autobiography: I know a lot of authors who write about something they’d wish they’d done differently in life. They allow their characters to do it again, take another crack at it, change things, and have different results. It’s a cathartic, fictional, do-over.

A new take on that old miss-take.

This picture has nothing to do with this essay, but it's my niece Erendira Ibarra with her first magazine cover. Cool, huh? I'm very proud ;-)


Sophie Littlefield said...

great post. I have been learning that lesson over and over and it's not quite sticking yet, the let-people-make-their-own-mistakes lesson. I always remember a therapist telling me I should do other people the *honor* of believing they can solve their own problems. Thanks for the reminder.

your niece is almost as pretty as you!

Gigi Pandian said...

I'm with you -- I can't imagine having done anything differently, regardless of how badly I screwed up at the time, because then I wouldn't have ended up where I am now!

Rachael Herron said...

I love that take, about watching a baby walk. Why don't I give myself permission to "not know" things when I don't? Thanks for the reminder.

And Erendira! GORGEOUS!

A. J. Larrieu said...

Great post! One of the things I love about writing is that nothing in my life feels wasted. All those mistakes and wrong turns are, as you put it so well, grist for the writing mill. It makes remembering my screw-ups less painful.

And CONGRATS to your niece. She's absolutely lovely!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Thanks for the nice niece comments! I'll pass 'em on ;-)
Yes, we do all need to give ourselves permission to screw up...and then to write about the screw-ups!