Anybody else making mistakes lately?
How could we not? We’re all being squeezed by virtue of living in an incredible moment in time, with so many pressures already bearing down on us (did someone say climate change?) even before the full-blown Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic was still playing havoc with our social norms and expectations when the murder of George Floyd set off a massive Black Lives Matter uprising, both close to home and worldwide. Life in the United States in 2020 is breathtaking and disorienting. Our brains are on overdrive. I assume I’m not the only one exercising poor judgment from time to time.
Fortunately, when I mess up, I’m able to call to mind and heart Tal Ben-Shahar, my number one happiness teacher. Tal has a number of wise sayings, including “permission to be human.” This is a succinct reminder that we are all biological creatures — animals, actually — with complex brain wiring designed for evolutionary purposes that may or may not be helpful in the 21st century. We often have only a rudimentary understanding of what is going on inside us, and why. Thus, even in the best of times, we are bound to make mistakes aplenty. 2020 is clearly not the best of times — though, I am hopeful, we are transitioning to a time when we can vastly improve our systems, if not our wiring. We shall see.
In the meantime, we might as well get comfortable with the idea that we’re going to make mistakes. Permission to be human, thank you very much. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to cause harm, emotional or physical. We may in fact accidentally do that, and if we do, we must make amends in some way if possible. As one of my favorite conflict books, Difficult Conversations puts it, intent does not equal impact. Still, understanding that we are all humans who simply cannot help but mess up with regularity might allow us to ease up on judging of self and others. We can choose compassion and kindness instead. Yes, I still want to do my best. The same is probably true for most of you. It just doesn’t always work out that way.
Which is to say, one of the keys to happiness in the time of Covid is accepting our basic humanity, our very natural tendency to goof up. As usual, this not only about happiness for self — it also encompasses others. When we can look at ourselves and others with more compassion, we put down the burden of unreasonable expectations for all of us. That can open the door to greater understanding, easier communications, and happier relationships.
We all make mistakes, whether it’s negotiating Covid-19, white supremacy, or standard life challenges. Pretty serious stuff, but it still reminds me of a song from Sesame Street: “Everyone Makes Mistakes.”
Here’s another positive to seize on: we can learn from our mistakes, as I did recently. It was an early May evening. Vermont was still mostly shut down and those of us who could stay home did so, except for essential trips, like buying groceries. Nobody had been inside my house, except the six of us who live here, since late February. But that night a neighbor called with an urgent request. She needed a bed for the night. I was the only one she could call.
Almost reflexively, I told her to come over. Yes was the obvious answer in pre-Covid times. After I hung up, though, I wondered, should I have said that?? It went against our household rules for decision-making during Covid. So I guess that was a mistake. But I did tell the neighbor she needed to wear a mask inside our house. She also brought her own bedding. After she got settled on the sofa bed in my office, she came downstairs to the living room to catch up. Without a mask on.
I was uncomfortable as we sat facing each other, about four feet apart, maskless. I didn’t think this was okay, but I also didn’t want to be rude to a guest in my house, and say, “please put your mask back on.” This was definitely a mistake. In retrospect, I see that a pandemic may be a good time to adjust what being polite looks like. Perhaps it is not actually polite to allow germs to spread to one’s family.
While we sat there, my husband Bob walked through the room. (BTW, I write this with his permission.) Bob rarely gets angry, especially not at me. That May evening was an exception. He was furious. After the neighbor went off to bed, I found him lacing up his shoes, preparing to head out. He was too angry at me for having potentially brought Covid into our house, without even checking with anybody else, to talk about it or even stay inside. He headed out for a walk.
It was a rough night in our relationship, but by morning were able to talk it through. I felt he made a mistake or two also (he agreed), but we were both understanding, and I was definitely contrite for not consulting him and for not insisting that the neighbor wear a mask. I learned from my mistakes, I apologized, and I didn’t beat myself up for having exercised poor judgment. I was behaving under old rules. I haven’t quite figured out the new Covid-19 rules yet.
At this point, after nearly 50 years of marriage, I’m pretty comfortable making mistakes around my husband. I am much less comfortable making mistakes as a white person eager to be a good ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of this, I think, is due to identity — another really valuable concept discussed in the book Difficult Conversations. I consider myself to be a good person, a social justice activist, someone who strives to be open and loving, and definitely not racist. Difficult Conversations teaches that some of us (including me) can have an “identity quake” when one of our self-defining concepts is threatened. Ugh. That’s definitely me. Some mistakes — like saying or doing something that seems to prove that I’m a bad white ally — leave me wanting to hide under the blankets.
But hiding under the blankets is not an option. This is the time we all need to be stepping it up in the fight for racial justice, not nursing our wounded identities in a corner somewhere. Instead, I need to take a breath and grant myself permission to be human. Though I will try my best to do my part to help dismantle systemic racism, I will inevitably say or do the wrong thing. Again, how could I not? Just as I hold onto old, pre-Covid behavior rules in my head and just as we are all governed by stone-aged wiring in our brains that we don’t even know is there, so, too, am I a product of a white supremacy system. There are surely implicit biases wired in there somewhere.
I saw a wise essay on a friend’s Facebook post, but I cannot remember who either the author or the poster was so I cannot give credit. The gist of the wisdom, from an author of color, was something like this: “White people, I know you’re confused. You’ve heard from people of color both to read more books and this moment isn’t about white people being in book club; reach out to your black friends and tell them you care and I don’t want one more of my white friends reaching out to me like this; and, you have to speak up and you have to shut up and listen.” The writer noted (again paraphrasing), “I know it’s exhausting, it’s been exhausting for us black folks for a long time. But you can figure it out.”
It’s hard to imagine figuring it out without cozying up to the idea that I’ll make mistakes. I’m not thrilled about making mistakes, but if I don’t help do the work of ending white supremacy, I will not be living my values, and that will make me unhappy with myself. Doing the work and making mistakes, and then beating myself up about making mistakes, will also make me unhappy with myself. Further, if we all ran away from the work for fear of making mistakes, that would mean enormous continued unhappiness in this country for oppressed peoples of color.
It is clear: for my happiness and yours, I must allow myself to be the human I am, and make the mistakes I will inevitably make. Maybe yours, too — maybe I can give you permission to be human, too. This being human thing isn’t all that easy. No need to make it unnecessarily harder for anybody by pretending we’re better equipped and differently wired than we actually are.