As parents, we are the participants, and observers of an ever-evolving communication play with our children. From the moment I discovered I was pregnant I began communicating with that little embryo inside of me. I am certain that at some point she began hearing me, when that was I am not entirely sure, but I was not going to risk missing that first moment so I began right away. I read to her, sang to her, used my (get ready to Google this, my young readers) Walkman to play her music.
When she was young, I never spoke to her as if she was a tiny, brainless thing that did not understand English. I spoke to her as I am ‘speaking’ to you now. I never intentionally spoke ‘over her head’, I made sure she understood what I was saying, but I did not ‘baby voice’ her.
When our children grow into adulthood, our conversations with them change. We begin as the holder of all knowledge. This is a position of great power; even the silliest choices can be devastating. I had considered, so many times never helping my daughter with her mispronunciation of words like “refrigerator” (fidgelator), and “elephant” (efelant) because they were so cute. I knew that it would be harder to fix, and very embarrassing for her in school, had I left these “Kelsey-ism’s” for someone else to first laugh at, and then correct. Of course, this is a silly example, but you get my point. We are in charge of so much of the input that will later become the output. Garbage in, garbage out.
At a point in our children’s lives, we are no longer the influencers. Our children look to their peers for what is right, what is wrong, and most importantly: what is cool. I was fortunate. My daughter did not go through the, “my Mom is stupid” stage that most teenagers go through while she was in high school. I did not get stupid until much later.
Later, I was no longer the problem fixer, nor was I a source of information for my daughter. In fact, I was something else entirely. I became, to my daughter, a mistake maker. In her eyes, I had become someone who could take the wrong path. I could do things that she would never do.
What are mistakes really? As I have gathered ample experience, I will counsel: mistakes are things best judged in the mind, or heart of the maker. What one mind sees as a mistake, another may see as living, experiencing, and most importantly: learning.
This is where I return to my daughter.
Recently, I had the greatest example my life could give me of that very thing. About learning, self-perception in error etc. I had a conversation that was twenty-two years in the making. Not a culmination, but a continuation of that conversation that started the day I discovered I was pregnant, when I promised her that I would make sure that I taught her every lesson I could teach her. Therefore, I began keeping the most important part of that promise.
Trapped in a car for a few hours, we somehow found ourselves on the topics of mistakes, and forgiveness. I can only speak today about what is mine to speak about. I will say that there is something eerie about looking straight ahead and at times hearing your own voice coming from the seat next to you. Hearing things that you would say and things that you have said, like a disembodied voice; but instead of creepy, it is reassuring. You know the saying about the apple, the tree.
Therefore, to be clear, this is not my daughter’s story. If you know my daughter, do not read any of her life into these words. This is a conversation, about a topic: things mothers and daughters talk about when times are serious for one or the other, when one is reading a book in the passenger seat, and something comes up, or maybe you are like the two of us and talk about this stuff because it is what we talk about.
Have I made mistakes? Fuck yes I have. They probably are not the mistakes you think I am referring to. Sure, I have chosen to do many things in my life that you might never choose. Fine for me, fine for you. We are not here today to discuss what the mistakes were, or were not. Today we are here to talk about two points that are far more important. Two points that I shared with my daughter that I hope with all of my heart sunk deep into her brain and heart. Things that she MUST remember if she is going to make it to my age, exactly double the age she is now without finding herself flat on her belly, with the weight of guilt, and self-hate that the perception of mistakes can do to you.
The perception of mistakes.
Life mistakes are all about perception. That is as true as tomorrow’s sunrise and sunset.
Do not judge yourself harshly when mistakes happen. If you allow yourself to perceive a mistake as a life-ending trauma, you will begin to feel that weight, the weight that will, one mistake after another, push you to the ground.
So, I call them choices.
When you make choices, you do them for a reason. You make those choices for reasons that are real, for feelings that are valid, for situations that are important to you. For those reasons, the choice you make is not always a mistake. What you do with that choice you just made is now up to you.
This is how we learn.
For every choice you make there is an opportunity to learn. If the choice you make does not result in exactly what you expected, your opportunity to learn is gigantic. We learn so much more from our unfulfilled expectations, ‘mistakes’, than from our victories. When everything goes perfectly, we just move forward.
Mistakes hurt. They hurt like hell. We tend to wallow in them. We try anything we can to fix them. We look back over what happened to figure out just where we went wrong, as though we had a T.A.R.D.I.S. and could go back and fix the thing. If we hurt another person, the best we can do is apologize, and hope for the best.
If we really mucked up the works, how far do we go back? How screwed up is the situation? Moreover, under the microscope, just how much of the fuck-up is ours and how much of it is a bigger problem? A problem that is endemic to a larger situation. This is important to know. Do not take on the full burden of a comedy of errors when you may only be the straight man.
Whatever the case, find the simplest path to the basics, then get the hell out of your head. That wallowing will get you nowhere. All it is is stinkin’ thinkin’
Why do we think so damned much? There are things we could be doing rather than going repeatedly over, this choice that we have made. Remember, it is all about perspective. It is time to change the perspective and consider what we have learned.
We have gone down a path, we have examined the scenery, and we have met the locals. We have breathed different air, and tried new experiences. Some of them have been, regardless of what anyone may tell us about the choice we have made, fantastic. Some have been difficult. The fact is, we did it and we cannot change it. That said, take your inventory. Decide what the lessons are. There may be things you found on that path that you are going to keep, and things you are going to toss. Take that inventory carefully, do not be cavalier in what you throw away.
There are things you learned on this journey that you now know are equivalent to putting your hand on the hot stove. There are other things that you felt, you tasted, you took in that were just out of this world fantastic. Learn to tell the difference, and do no be so hard on yourself. You took this road for a reason, take the lumps, and take the prizes. Learning from mistakes does not always mean you are going to end up with the short end of the stick.
Here is part two.
Part two may be the most important part, so I hope I have kept your attention. I had a captive audience that day. Locked in a car on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, I had my daughter’s attention. If you remember nothing else, remember the following.
When you do make mistakes, and we have established that we all will: you must forgive yourself. So often, we hear about forgiving others in life, but have you given much thought to forgiving yourself?
Imagine for a moment writing each one of your mistakes on a cinder block. Now, take each of those cinder blocks and start stacking them on your shoulders. If your choices hurt others as well, make two cinder blocks. As you progress through your life, piling those cinder blocks, one at a time on your shoulders, the weight can become unbearable.
First, you would slump for a few years, but eventually you would drop to your knees. For years, you would find yourself walking through life on your knees. Imagine yourself, going through life, the cinder blocks of guilt pushing you down, and you struggling to stay upright. Guilt-block after guilt-block continuing to pile up.
You cannot spend your life pushed to the ground by your self-manifested guilt, and shame.
After awhile, down you go, flat on your stomach. You are dragging yourself flat on your belly, back stacked with cinder blocks. The only way to get rid of those cinder blocks to give yourself for one of those mistakes. (Many of which could be feelings of guilt about hurting others that the offended party does not even remember if you are anything like me!) Now try another one. Each time you forgive yourself, you remove one, maybe two of those weights.
It would be much easier to forgive yourself sooner. It would be better for your emotional posture to not wait until you are dragging on the ground, wallowing in shame. This is how the happy people do it. They are not ignoring the hard things in life; happy people are simply facing and taking care of the issues that arise right when they happen. It just so happens that not all of us are built that way.
Remember that inventory of what we kept, and what we left behind when we made those choices in life? Do not be so quick to just toss people away. I cannot say it any better than Audrey Hepburn when she said,
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.
As we live, as we love, as we travel through life, it is the people that travel with us that help us to turn mistakes into lessons. They carry us when we cannot walk, they look into our eyes when we cannot even look into the mirror. Be ever so careful who you let go and who you keep.
And this is when, had I not been driving at intermittent speeds of 80 mph and then 5 mph (because, you know, LA freeways), I would have held my daughter’s face and looked her square in the eyes when I said this. Instead, I held her hand.
“I have made many choices, I do not have as many regrets as you may think. I have learned so much from my choices. I have seen beautiful things. I have a travelled far. The regrets I have are from hurting people. Because of that guilt, and pain, the roads I travel are traversed flat on my belly. I move slowly. I tire easily. I am alone. DO NOT become me. I beg you. Learn forgiveness now. Learn to forgive yourself, learn to forgive others. Keep your people close to you. Learn it while you are young or you will be alone and beat down lower than you can imagine when you are my age. Forgive yourself because you are a beautiful soul and you are my child, well worth forgiving. Learn from your choices, and learn from your mother. Move on. Always move on.”
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