Learning from our mistakes

by Maria L. Evans

“The question "Who am I?" really asks, "Where do I belong or fit?" We get the sense of that "direction" -- the sense of moving toward the place where we fit, or of shaping the place toward which we are moving so that it will fit us -- from hearing how others have handled or are attempting to handle similar (but never exactly the same) situations. We learn by listening to their stories, by hearing how they came (or failed) to belong or fit.”
Ernest Kurtz, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

It's a reasonably safe bet I'll never mix up Ignatius of Antioch and Ignatius of Loyola again.

There I was, dutifully attending the 7:30 a.m. Morning Prayer service at my home parish on a beautiful October Wednesday morning, thinking the world was grand, and my priest matter-of-factly announces that today is the feast day of Ignatius of Antioch. Suddenly my prayerful brain ground to a metal-shearing and squealing halt, sparks flying, teeth peeling off the gears and smoke pouring out of my ears.

"ANTIOCH? Oh, CRAP! I did the Speaking to the Soul piece on Ignatius of LOYOLA!" (Well, I didn't actually think "crap." I thought of another word.)

Needless to say, Morning Prayer immediately turned into Morning Busted Play as I squirmed red-faced in my secret shame all through the rest of the service. Even my post-Morning Prayer silent time turned into texting-Ann-Fontaine-expounding-on-what-a-dweeb-I-was time. Her response: "Well, it was a good essay."

One of the blessings of Morning Prayer at my church is that the post-service chit-chat time in the sacristy among the small cadre of Wednesday Morning Worshipers lasts longer than the service. That day, we were minus one of the regulars as her husband was in St. Louis awaiting a replacement of his artificial heart valve. We missed her so much we called her on my cell phone and put her on speaker so she could at least be with us long distance. It melted the self-imposed shame of my national-level liturgical calendar gaffe into nothing. On the way to work I thought to myself, "Wow. I was worked up about that at the level that I would be worked up about something big, like a "never event." "Never events," in the language of hospital committee-speak, are those horrible indefensible patient safety errors that the deed speaks for itself--things like getting an incompatible unit of blood, or the patient falling and breaking a limb, or operating on the wrong limb. They are the things that the world places a 100% compliance rate on, and one realizes that no matter how well one checks and double checks and triple checks to reduce that rate, the rate will never be 100%. The best human beings can do is 99.999something percent, and woe betide the person responsible in a "never event." It will certainly result in the loss of one or more jobs. It will most likely result in a malpractice settlement check. It may result in the loss of licensure or institutional accreditation. Medical career leper-dom is a very real possibility.

Now, getting my Ignatiuses mixed up is not even remotely close to a "never event." But those of us schooled in the shame of "never events" don't have a very good thermostat about those delineations. Suffice it to say my anxiety shot straight to the "never event" level and only backed down AFTER we went to that awful emotional place and I could more rationally assess the situation. Sometimes it takes the non-realization of our worst fears to play out before we even believe it wasn't THAT awful. Yet many of us beat ourselves over the head with a concrete block over gaffes like going to the North Pizza Hut instead of the South Pizza Hut and wondering "Why hasn't anyone shown up yet?"

Medicine is not the only place we are schooled in "never events" and lose that thermostat of shame and anxiety. Anyone who grew up with substance abuse or violence in the household learns it. People who marry abusers learn it. LGBT people learn it. The bullied and oppressed learn it. Visionaries who are slapped down learn it. Anyone who has ever been shamed for being "different" learn it. There's no shortage of teaching ground for that, which is why it makes it very difficult for many of us to recognize that God has no list of "never events." God will always accept our approach for relationship.

Unfortunately, our human response to someone else's mistake is to jump on them with both feet or shun them for fear their cooties might rub off on us. I think back about pathologists I've known who have made horrible mistakes that are unforgivable in the scheme of the world--things like getting two names or surgical path numbers mixed up and giving two people the wrong diagnosis, or over-calling a breast cancer and setting the chain of events in play for an unnecessary mastectomy. I had prayers of gratitude it didn't happen to me. I became more compulsive about my own mistakes. But I did not approach those people in love. I simply thought, "Well, it sucks to be you," and kept my distance. I rationalized it by saying, "Oh, I don't want to make it worse for them by calling attention to it." I knew there were people out there that thought they were horrible and incompetent people, and in my heart I knew they were not. But I didn't get any closer than was absolutely necessary, either, when people were out there calling for their head.

The truth is, our fastest learning occurs when we make embarrassing mistakes, if we are willing to show up on God's doorstep in our vulnerable, mistaken state, as well as healing from the stories of other people. I have to admit that in the mistakes I've made in this life, the thing that has always gotten me over the hurdle has been the people who were unafraid to admit to me when they made the exact same mistake, and can tell it with that wonderful mixture of wisdom, pathos, and humor. It is a key component of why Twelve Step programs are successful. People come to Whatevers Anonymous, thinking they are the only person in the world who could possibly have borne this level of shame, and if they sit long enough in those rooms, discover that someone else is telling "their" story with different names attached to it.

For me, it's the beauty of the stories of the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible. It doesn't matter one iota to me whether those characters are factually historical, because I know those people. I see them in the street. I have worked with some of them. I am related to some of them. At times, I am them. They remind me, "God has no list of 'never events'."

What are the stories of the mistakes in your life that became elements of healing for the mistakes of others?

Comments (2)

Oh my dearest Maria, I am SO glad that I was not the ONLY one to immediately think of St. Ignatius of Loyola! Having spent a year as a Chaplain Resident at a Jesuit Hospital and having a number of respected mentors who are Jesuits...well, I just thought of "Iggy."

And in terms of mistakes.... well, I went through my chaplain residency wanting to be oh-so-competent - which of course I only sort of was. And yes, some events that felt like horrible mistakes - and embarrassing - became moments for me to not only learn to walk more lightly with myself but also with others. It now makes me a better mentor to our chaplain interns. My mistakes are enabling me to teach my own teenager how to better handle their mistakes, to know that the world will not in fact end, and to grow. Thank you for your reflection.
Grace & peace to you.
Valerie+

...and thank YOU for your comments!

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