I am trying to figure out how to forgive myself when I make mistakes. Not small mistakes—though those bother me, too—but bigger mistakes, mistakes that could alter the course of my life entirely. I made one last year, and I’m still living in the past, thinking and rethinking how my life would be different if I had chosen otherwise.
In my professional role as an editor, mistakes are evident every day. An editor’s job is to find the error and fix it. It’s easier, of course, when those errors belong to other people. But when we’re dealing with our own mistakes, or something we missed, the extra critical voice jumps in and says “No, not acceptable. What’s wrong with you?” Kindness to self pretty much goes out the window.
Perhaps, though, it’s helpful to understand the circumstances that created a situation where error occurred in the first place, before all that rumination and self-flagellation sets in.
I thought about this topic when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ new collection of short stories Fresh Complaint. The final and title story in the collection is about a physics professor named Matthew who meets a college-age girl while on a tour for his new book. Well, he thinks she’s a college-age girl, but later he finds out she’s underage. Prakrti, his conquest, is actually quite manipulative, but Matthew probably falls for her seduction for a few reasons, even though he knows better—he’s had too much to drink; he likes the attention; he is far from home and doubtful that he’ll get caught. So in one night, he makes two major errors that alter the course of his life: sleeping with an underage girl and cheating on his wife.
Unfortunately, this is a relatively common story, even cliche. (Though Eugenides’ telling doesn’t feel that way.) For four months, Matthew is relegated to England, waiting for the smoke to clear, instead of being able to go home to America. And here’s the thing about making this kind of mistake—it can’t be fixed. He can’t unsleep with the girl. He can’t go back to his life as it was. His relationship with his children, his marriage, his criminal record (if the girl presses charges), will change him and his life forever.
People make mistakes like this all the time, and it leads to regret. If I had just done this differently…. If I had just listened to so-and-so…. If I could just go back and make a different choice this time….
So what’s to be done?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers for forgiving one’s mistakes. I’m still working it through that on my own. But I’m trying to apply what I already know, the toolkit I’ve acquired from other phases in my life, to accept what’s in the present moment and not fall into the pain of regret. The past is past—it can’t be revisited, can’t be relived. The future is a mirage, full of assumptions and illusions about what is meant to be. So instead of focusing on those, we must take each day as it comes. I’m walking on the path of faith—a long and windy road—that even through mistakes—even through big ones—good can somehow still come.
Image: “The Long and Windy Road”