On the train home from Boston the other night, I referred to my friend’s son by the wrong name.
She was very nice about it when she corrected me. “Now that you mention it, he does look like a Josh,” she said. She was sweet, but I was mortified.
Five hours later, I found myself unable to sleep because I felt so embarrassed about my gaffe. My friend had laughed it off and given me a hug, and the other friend who was with us dismissed it as not a problem at all. “We don’t see each other’s kids much,” she comforted, but still I felt embarrassed, which made me feel even sillier because how silly is it to feel upset about this when no one else does?
While reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess with my kids, I was struck by Sara Crewe’s practice of letting an inner sense guide her actions and her attitudes despite her external circumstances. In her case, this meant acting as though she was a princess and treating people with grace and politeness despite the fact that she was being treated like a scullery maid and errand drudge.
I decided I wanted to do something similar, but since I don’t really go in for princess stuff, I cast about for a person or ideal that I could emulate in difficult moments. After rejecting the Dalai Lama because I couldn’t imagine what he would if his kids were yelling at each other, I settled on Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch.
Dorothea’s not a perfect choice for me, but I like her all the more because she isn’t perfect. She has strong moral convictions and she acts upon those convictions even when it’s unpleasant or uncomfortable to do so. She makes mistakes, but she makes them for all the right reasons.
Acting like Dorothea this week has helped me to get out and do what had to be done—my morning walk, my ten minutes of meditation, getting to bed by 10:00, making dinner—even when I didn’t feel like it because those were the right things to do. Dorothea has even helped me to speak more gently to my children than I might otherwise. (Or at least, she’s helped me speak more gently some of the time. I did some very un-Dorothea-like yelling around mid-week.)
But after my mistake Sunday night I was at a loss. Would Dorothea Brooke have messed up her friend’s son’s name? I can’t really imagine it, but if she did, would she have stayed up half the night worrying about? (Actually, I think she just might have.)
My plan to emulate a fictional character had sort of broken down, but I wasn’t upset with myself for not acting like Dorothea; I was upset with myself for making a stupid mistake and then being upset about it even though no one else really cared.
I’m almost forty, and I’m still waiting to feel comfortable in my own skin.
Feeling comfortable in my skin is going to require either not making mistakes anymore (i.e. perfection) or learning to forgive myself when I do something silly. For decades I’ve tried for perfection because forgiveness just feels too difficult, but in reality both feel equally impossible to me.
My inclination is to tackle both the mistakes and the habit of feeling bad about them like I would any other bad habit—take them by the lapels and shake—but maybe that’s not the best approach.
Our minister gave a sermon that same morning about the challenge of feeling grateful for things that happen that we wouldn’t choose. She was thinking of accidents, life-threatening medical conditions, and chronic illness, but while “goofing up in public” and “overreacting to social gaffes” seem tiny in comparison, they might be a place to begin. Small as they are, they do fall into the category of something about me that I wouldn’t choose.
Maybe if I approached this relatively little thing as a spiritual practice of gratitude and sought out the positives about making mistakes, it would ease the discomfort a bit. And because it’s a spiritual practice, I wouldn’t have the goal of actually feeling grateful, just looking at it with a grateful frame of mind, which takes some of the pressure off.
Maybe by practicing feeling grateful for the small unpleasant things in my life—like persistent eczema and getting lost while driving—I’ll be more ready to feel grateful for the bigger things that I wouldn’t choose to happen (and would prefer not even to name) but that are sure to happen nonetheless.
It seems worth a try. If, that is, I can find something positive about making mistakes.
How do you tackle your mistakes and imperfections? Are you able to feel grateful for both the “good” and the “bad”?