The science of mistaking

(Posted by Mark)

Whatever you think you know, however well you believe something corresponds to another, the promises or hearts you’ve broken, the games you’re playing, your timing, what you want or what you worry about, the gifts you give and the ideas and motivations you’ve been trying to second-guess, the one common thread through them all is that you will make mistakes.

We all make a mess of our lives from time to time,
It’s part of the process that you stumble as you climb.

We can’t help it because to err is human. With every intention of being accurate, honest, responsible, caring or diligent, we will nevertheless make mistakes because we are intrinsically imperfect creatures. It is how our mistakes are made, the consequences of them, their frequency and their nature which are the real issues rather than any debate over whether they are made. Because, and it’s really simple, we all make them.

Making mistakes
Mistakes are made for many different reasons. We may not know exactly what we are doing or what was expected of us in a particular job or function, we may be unwell or tired and thus less able to concentrate fully on the task set to us, we may have been attempting to do too much, resulting in many jobs done less well than a few tasks completed successfully, we may even have introduced deliberate mistakes in an attempt to test or discredit someone else. All these are recognised, if not exactly acceptable, ways of explaining why our mistakes have been made.

One of the most frustrating occasions is when you are challenged as to your mistakes with the question, “Well, why did you do that?”. If you explain that you are overworked or ill or unsure of your task and they accept this, then you can get on with correcting the error and all will be well, only in a slightly longer amount of time than anticipated. It is when the other person refuses to accept your explanation that matters get irritating. “I don’t want your excuses” has been a line used on me, which is guaranteed to annoy: asking why and then not listening or refusing the answer is a colossal waste of time which could be better used in remedying whatever is deficient. Suffice to say, I have tried to avoid doing work for that person ever again.

Other, more personal mistakes can be made because we have blinded ourselves as to what we want, where are heading in life, or simply because we don’t want to know what the real situation is. We make these mistakes in the belief that we are doing what is for the best or at least what we want to believe is the best, and then allow ourselves to be drawn deeper and deeper into confirming that mistake, which in turn deepens the hurt we feel and which we cause others.

Admitting mistakes
“I’m sorry, but you must be mistaken” is the polite way of telling someone that they are plain wrong. What they claim to know or have understood is somehow faulty. This can be accidental misunderstanding: a difficulty with an accent, two words which sound similar to each other, a bad telephone line, a concept not quite fully grasped; or it can be a deliberate misunderstanding, in order to be humorous, heighten tension, intentionally mislead or twist words and meanings to suit the respondent’s own purposes. This is the first mistake and leads most often to an immediate second mistake, which is denying that any such misunderstanding went on.

Some people really hate having to say they are sorry, don’t they? Admitting your mistake and acknowledging this to someone else is very, very easy but for some it seems to represent something far more serious like a character flaw or a signal that they have fallen slightly shorter than the Olympian ideals which they have set themselves. I don’t exempt myself or anyone else when I say that there are certain situations where we all hate to say we are sorry, because we hate to admit we are wrong. If there is a subject upon which you consider yourself the expert and you get a detail or fact wrong, when challenged by someone who claims to have superior knowledge, it can be difficult to admit your mistake. We like to feel that we have certain talents and gifts, and don’t necessarily like being contradicted or corrected. A slice of humble pie is often the dish of the day when we take our self-importance too far, and occasionally the odd person demonstrating that we are imperfect can do wonders.

One difficulty is the devaluation of the word ‘sorry’, which can be used for anything between accidentally detonating a nuclear device and having someone tread on your foot on an Underground train. While wailing “mea culpa” at the top of your voice and committing hari-kiri may seem an excessive way of apologising, so too does a mumbled “sorry, I ‘spose” seem a minimal and less-than-heartfelt was of expressing your regret. It is the sincerity of the apology and the promise that such a mistake will not be repeated which indicates the real force of meaning behind the word, and not simply the use of the word itself.

Forgiving mistakes
To continue the Alexander Pope quotation, “to err is human, to forgive, divine” but forgiveness can’t occur until that little two-syllable word has been uttered. The scale of the absolution correlates directly to the scale of the transgression. Minor mistakes and the ensuing apologies are easily waved away as their significance is little and the effect they have had on the other person is hardly important. More serious errors of commission or omission will be far harder to excuse as their direct consequence will be felt more keenly by those who have suffered.

The hurt – the real hurt felt can sometimes make you think that nothing could ever let it go, erase the memory of the distress, of the heart-sickening, stomach-aching distress which stays and stays and stays, lingering as though it’s a physical part of your body, your memory attaching the mistake committed against you to all the things you hear and see, despoiling what you love and have loved, crying dry tears and turning away from mirrors – may preclude forgiveness. God may be all-forgiving, but we are far from gods and our ability to forgive is more limited, bounded only by our capacity for love. Forgiveness can be the benchmark of love or its absence: do you love me enough to forgive me? Can you love me enough to forgive me? They are questions we should hope we never to need to ask.

Sing for absolution,
I will be singing and falling from your grace.

But if we are forgiven, then doesn’t that open up just a little ray of light? A tiny corner of a painted-out window to look through and see what we nearly missed, what we nearly threw away, what we nearly destroyed? Isn’t it the understanding that mistakes will be made, that they can and are regretted, that they are not inevitably to be repeated, and that lessons have been learned – isn’t that worth forgiveness? I believe so.

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