A while back, I made a mistake. It was unintentional, but it was bad in a very not good way. The kind of bad where afterward you feel a little bit ill, or a lot ill, and you want very much to go back in time and change it and everything that led up to it.
The kind of mistake I tend to overthink endlessly; over which I beat myself up.
I suspect it happens most often to the kindest people:
We say something wrong, do the wrong thing, unintentionally hurt someone, and we have a hard time moving on. We replay the situation over and over, as though enough self-condemnation will somehow make it okay.
This time, a few days after my unforgivable blunder, a thought suddenly popped into my head out of nowhere:
Who are you to wallow in your mistakes, to waste time beating yourself up over the past?
Um, excuse me?
The thought expanded to explain itself.
What a luxury it is to have time and space to spend hours dissecting what can’t be changed. Tell me: Exactly how does your self-flagellation serve the world?
But I did this bad thing. I feel bad.
Everyone makes mistakes. You know, for certain, that 99% of the time you are kind, compassionate, loving, helpful, generous, thoughtful, capable. Who are you to waste your energy on self-hatred, when what the world needs now, more than anything, is good people who are present and engaged?
I’m done. That’s it. Move on.
But … but ….
But the voice in my head was right. Good people of the world, what a waste of our talents and skills and energy, to devote our time to the failings of being human, to invest it in the irreversible. To spend our time beating ourselves up.
We fall not so that we will give up, but so that we will grow stronger.
When we become paralyzed by our mistakes, we are of no use to the future. Immersing ourselves in our imperfections denies the world our strengths.
Let’s be clear: This is not a permission slip for anyone to go around hurting people and doing harm without conscience or consequence, thinking “I’ll just forgive myself again and move on.”
Imagine encountering a maze in the middle of the forest. Would you expect to find your way to the center on your first try? Of course not.
It’s not a failure to go down the wrong path. It’s only a failure if you go down that path again and again; if you realize you’re on the wrong path and you continue along it anyway.
We all make mistakes. If you need to make an apology, do so. If you need to make amends, do so. But then stop wasting time on what can’t be changed. The world needs us, good people; the world needs us now as much as ever.
The world needs our compassion, and that compassion has to start with ourselves.