The phrase “to make a mistake” implies purposive, conscious, planned action. That’s utterly inaccurate: there are no intentional mistakes, no one consciously sets out to fail.
When we fail on purpose, when we make a mistake by design, we are actually succeeding with some kind of covert plan. Therefore, even an act of conscious sabotage isn’t a mistake (to you) even if takes the form of a mistake (to others).
Bottom-line: No one makes mistakes because no one ever makes a mistake on purpose (sabotage notwithstanding).
And yet mistakes do take place. Indeed, now and then we all drop the proverbial ball. Not because we intend to but because there are too many balls to juggle with.
Understanding the difference between an intentional mistake and an unintentional occurrence is key to wellbeing and self-acceptance.
A Mistake is a Difference Between What Is and What Should Be
When we think of a mistake, we think of a difference between the real and the ideal, i.e. of a discrepancy between what is and what we expect to be (or is expected to be). But any expectation is fundamentally generic. Whether the standard is set by you, your boss, you parent, your partner, legal system or social norms, it fails to reflect the specifics of any given moment and the specifics of any given mind.
Rules and laws set the ideal expectation of conduct that is aimed at everyone but is based on no one in particular. It’s true that we shouldn’t run the red light but sometimes we do. Why is that? Certainly not because we want to get a ticket, wreck our car or run somebody over. But because even the most alert of us now and then experience a lapse of attention. We are doing our best even when our best falls short of the general expectation.
Now, if you consciously decide to run the red light, it isn’t a mistake - it is an intended socially-unacceptable action, a planned violation of traffic norms. Conscious violations – sabotage, criminal acts – of course, exist. It’s the mistakes that don’t.
Mistakes Are Accidents
On September 15, 1927, the legendary American dancer, Isadora Duncan, “met a tragic death” when she “was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement” (The New York Times). Gertrude Stein, in referring to this occurrence, said: “affectations can be dangerous.” True: this wouldn’t have happened if it had not been for Ms. Duncan’s affectation for long flowing scarves and for Benoit Falchetto whose car she was in. But it’s preposterous to imply that Isadora Duncan should not have worn scarves or been in a car with a lover. She wasn’t killed by affectations. She was killed by an accident of life. An accident is a collision of variables that cannot be reasonably anticipated.
Mistakes are accidents. That’s why if you run through the red light and have a wreck, we first compassionately call it an accident. And only at a later point, for reasons of litigious finger-pointing and compensation, we switch to the blame-game language of wrong-doing.
Justice Is Blind to Specifics, But You Don’t Have to Be
Reality doesn’t short-change. You are a sub-set of this reality. Therefore, you never short-change. You always max out. You are always doing the best that you can at any given point in time. Whether it is obvious to others or not, make it obvious to yourself. The rest of your so-called mistakes are just the accidental mismatches of expectations.
Of course, you will be held responsible for what you do and don’t do, and you will have to clean up your unintentional mess. You will be made to correct the mistakes you haven’t really “made” (in any intentional sense). Of course, the society will demand that you face the consequences of your conduct. Of course, the society will typically ignore your plea that you had done the best that you could, that you did not mean to make a mistake.
Chances are you will be judged as guilty as if you had meant to screw up. That’s how societies work. They operate on generic expectations that do not take real-time variables into account. Justice, after all, is blind to specifics. But you don’t have to be blind to specifics. You, yourself, however, can see that you did your best, that you never meant to make a mistake (sabotage notwithstanding), and, therefore, you don’t have to beat yourself up for any unfortunate life-occurrences that have befallen you.
The Cup Is Already Broken
You might have picked up your coffee cup from your desk without interrupting the eye-contact with your customer and brought the cup with surgical precision to your lips a thousand times, but it’s only a matter of time before some hidden variable (say, an unforeseen hypoglycemic tremor of your hand) will interfere with your intention to have a sip. As a result, the cup will tip, the coffee will spill into your crotch, you will yelp and, reflexively, release the grip, and the cup will drop smashing on the floor. And then you will be chewed out by your boss for having ruined (as if by intent!) a stretch of perfectly nice carpet.
As the Zen saying goes, the cup is already broken. Expect the mistakes and, when they happen, remind yourself that you did your best even if no one else believes it.
Adapted from Present Perfect
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011