On Screwing Up

Sometimes.... I yell at my kids. Forget to feed the cat. Distract myself on Facebook when I should be working. Get mad at my husband when he lacks telepathy to magically know my every need without me telling him.

What do you do when you screw up in front of your children? You can a) pretend it's not happening and send them to their rooms if they say something about it or b) acknowledge your humanity, apologize to the appropriate parties, and move on.

I'm pretty sure b) is the better path. We posted a list of rules that Laurel and I came up with a few weeks ago. The first one is no yelling. I mainly put it down because she was being loud and annoying. But now she points out when I am yelling. At first, this was hard to hear. But it has become a way to diffuse a situation.

Recently, I've heard some people confess really heartbreaking stories about mistakes they made, sometimes literally decades ago, that they still feel bad about. These transgressions gnaw at them, even though I imagine the wronged party doesn't even remember it, or at least, isn't still feeling bad about it. I'm convinced that you will be a much healthier and happier person if, when you wake up in the morning you do so with the acknowledgement that you are probably going to eff up something that day. I think it gives you permission to take more risks with your time, with your energy and with your love.

When you practice apologizing, it becomes a routine and comfortable act that serves to build relationships, and not one that you are reluctant to engage in. When you don't avoid it, it's much easier and faster to move on.

And really, this practice is useful for screw ups that occur in all facets of your life, not just with your children. When you commit to something that you can't really follow through with, or miss a deadline, or say something that offends someone at work, it can be hard to repair the relationship or situation. Instead, you might turn to blaming other people or avoiding them altogether. Most workplaces don't foster a culture of saying sorry and repairing relationships, so we aren't used to behaving this way. I was just discovering this way of thinking last year when I was teaching at a high school, and it was extraordinarily difficult for me to unveil my vulnerability this way to my students, colleagues and supervisors. In fact, when I did, the results were not good (for me professionally).

There have been a dozen shootings in the neighborhoods around my home in the last week or so. Warm weather and retaliation are to blame, I guess. There's always an increase in crime in the early spring around here. Laurel was bothered by the news, and suggested that we post a sign, "No shooting other people." Then she said we should move to another state, and pointed to states on the map, one by one, asking "are there guns there?" When we said yes over and over again, she put her hands to her forehead and dramatically said, "this is ridiculous!"

I should have filmed it for a gun control ad.

But really, it's not the guns that are to blame. Certainly, if they were less accessible, fewer people would die. But the underlying issue is that many of us have no means by which to acknowledge our failures or struggles or mistakes. The culture of the street is to step up if someone steps to you. Not doing so puts you at grave risk. It's easy to see how harsh that way is when the result is gun violence and death, but I would argue that this problem is pervasive across our society.

The hardest thing for me to accept about all of this is that acknowledging your screw ups and apologizing doesn't make life all peaceful and orderly and utopian. Conflict remains.

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