Admitting mistakes is very difficult for many of us. Even people who are not perfectionists don’t tend to like standing up and saying, “well I really messed that up, oops.” It just doesn’t feel good to say that you were wrong, or you messed up, or that you should have done it the one way rather than the other. Of course we all know that we learn best from mistakes, somehow the contrast of right and wrong makes it easier to see the other side, but having the confidence to know that even when you make a mistake you can do better next time, having the belief in yourself that you do not have to be defined by the error, having the humility to accept that getting it wrong is part of being human – that is all hard and uncomfortable and something that we have to force ourselves to accept.
I get a lot of things wrong, though perhaps fewer than I used to but that is because I have taken the time to reflect on where I have been and have learned that if I slow down all of the decision making, all of the reactions I tend to come at things with a little more clarity and feel like I am erring less than I did. It would be a mistake (ha ha) to think that I will ever get to a place where I don’t make mistakes. I’m just trying to cut down on the quantity.
Last week I spent some time cleaning out my closet, literally (though this is of course a great metaphor for loads of things) and the act was as much about getting rid of the things that are too worn or the wrong size as it was about acknowledging mistakes and literally letting them go. The jeans with the enormous wide legs – I like the idea of me in them and I never liked the reality. I could have guessed when I bought them that they would be tough to wear since I had to imagine a persona I was not to pull them off. Oh well, I made a mistake and into the bag they went. The cherry colored, patent leather wedge sandals – so beautiful – impossible to stand in, that could have been the clue when I tried them on, or the fact that I had to consider the color of my toenails so they wouldn’t clash. I thought for a minute about putting them in the garden as pieces of art, but no into the bag they went – perhaps they will be right for someone. I don’t like judging my clothes and rejecting them, I picked them at some point so it feels like I am judging myself, I don’t like admitting that I screwed up or feeling like I wasted money. It’s hard to say “I was wrong,” but the truth is that if you never say you were wrong, if I never give my self the chance to know that I made a mistake I don’t really get the chance to consider that information the next time I make a similar decision. You just never learn.
And here’s the thing about mistakes: some of them are a pair of jeans and it’s really just about ego and frugality to fix that. No one was harmed. But some of them are huge, they exist on a much bigger level and you can’t undue the severity of the injury in any way. I speak of course now about the death penalty and not about whether it is acceptable or not, or effective or not – those are different issues. I speak only of the possibility for error. We are not perfect, sometimes we get it wrong. Saying sorry to a dead person is not usually very well received.
In the paper last week were two articles on the page together: the first about the supreme court taking up a review of the effectiveness of lethal injection drugs. The second about a man who spent the last forty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The evidence was bad, the informant was corrupt, there was probably some racism involved. Forty years. The current district attorney apologized to the man who spent forty years in prison based on mistakes. We can not give back forty years of freedom, we can not undue the harm caused to this man, but at least he gets to walk out of prison. Mistakes are made by all of us, so you know just think about that.