Life has a way of giving us enough challenges to teach us to adapt quickly to situations by forcing us to pay attention to mistakes. Setbacks, missteps and shortfalls form the backdrop of our experience, shaping and contrasting the triumphs and achievements that are the peaks of a rich existence. Accepting mistakes, embracing them, even, is not only a life skill, it is resilience at its most optimal. Mistakes are our teachers—the bigger the error, the greater our potential for growth. I’m finally beginning to appreciate my own mistakes now more than ever, and I’m looking for ways to fall down with grace. If I scrape my knees often enough, I know I’m playing for keeps. Only benchwarmers escape scratches and lumps.
During office hours recently, a young lady came to see me to tell me about all the things that weren’t working in her life. Unable to produce work, she complained that she had no motivation and could make no effort. She was scared about failing her classes, rightly so. This particular young person has a great personality, a lot of energy and possesses a very chatty disposition. Even when she is completely unprepared to discuss the topic at hand, she still wants to contribute. Looking at her, I couldn’t help notice her need for guidance. Interrupting her rambling, I asked her to think about the advice she’d give a friend in her situation. Her mouth opened, but I didn’t want an answer—at least not at that moment. I wanted her to go home, reflect and stop by again. I could see that talking is too easy for her. She can talk all day and never get to the reflection and introspection she needs.
That’s a familiar response for many of us. We fill the silences with noise. We turn the volume up on the voices on the television or radio—anything so long as we don’t have to be alone with our thoughts. To her credit, she pulled out a battered notebook and a pencil stub and wrote down the assignment. I’m not sure I’ll see her again, however. She hasn’t been back, yet, despite her enthusiasm. But before she left my office, I looked her in the eye and told her she shouldn’t worry too much about making mistakes. They’re natural, I said, just make some new ones, too.
Contemplating her situation later, I couldn’t help but see myself. She’s been repeating the same errors for nine weeks, now, always returning to pick up where she left off, and I, too, have done the same things for years. It seems I easily get on the dreaded hamster wheel, naively expecting to step off in Paris, while merely circumnavigating the familiar perimeters of my comfort zone. I can’t grow if I’m not willing to be clumsy, to fall down a few times and keep trying. I’ve grown too careful; I don’t want to look foolish or risk too much, but security also has a price tag.
Reading the San Francisco Chronicle a few Sundays ago, I was so saddened by an article about the growing income gaps between blacks and everyone in San Francisco and California. It seems that every other group is making financial and economic gains, while African Americans are literally moving backwards. I walked around with the unsettling numbers on my mind for weeks. I searched my students’ faces for answers, but they don’t have any more answers than I do. I grieve as I look at the handful of African-American students out of the ninety in my sphere. I think about my part to play in keeping them from becoming the living statistics in the newspaper. I pray for them. I nudge them to stay vigilant so they can ride their star to victory.
A few days later, it hits me. An email about a full-time position in my department sent by our department chair is a historical first. It was the first time in my eight years as an instructor in the department that I learned about a position from an inside source. As my past telescoped through my mind, all the pain I’ve endured at the hands of my colleagues, of hiring committees predisposed to disqualify applicants who happen to be people of color, I suddenly recognized myself, the woman trapped by fear.
Despite being illegally disqualified from the applicant pool more than once, I repeatedly applied for a full-time post, steadfast and loyal daughter of the college that I am. Each time, my disappointment mounted heavily on my buoyant personality, weighing me down, etching away my confidence. It was only last year that I decided to stop applying, to stop torturing myself with the process. But there I was, once more drawn to the idea by an email even though I know I have try something different if I want to thrive.
I am the living statistic in the paper. This year I spent half the year unemployed, only to make up the deficit in a deafening whirl of activity as I unexpectedly accepted a temporary full-time position, while nursing a debilitating injury.
Noticing is my first step off the wheel.
For me, the task is to stay on course with my purpose and calling, to be willing to persevere and walk into the unknown. The temptation to stay comfortable is great. Even the squeak of the wheel is comforting—I know just where the bumps are, where to pause for a breath. Limping at high speed on the wheel to nowhere, I hurry to my stop, chasing a dream that has long since lost its opulence.
With these realizations, I am at last able to see that my student, the one justifying and stringing together excuses, the one who can do it all with her eyes closed like an expert beader, is me. I am my student. I keep making the same mistake. It’s safe and easy—predictably awkward, but not at all scary. Finally able to understand why the Chronicle article was so upsetting, I acknowledge that it is because the article is about me. I have to make a new mistake.
The decision to change is nothing new for me. I have been a transitional character all my life. This is my big chance to fall down while doing something I feel is critical for my own liberation. Ironically, it’s the best semester of my teaching career, because I am finally living from the very center of my heart. Releasing and opening to possibilities is more like disembarking in a strange land than it is like falling exhausted from a squeaky wheel. At least I know I’m heading toward the unfamiliar. When the alternative is to tighten up my laces, pop a few Advil, and keep spinning, I want all the more to take a chance. It can’t get any worse. I’m already at the bottom. Maybe I can kick off from here and make some of those mistakes I’ve been dreaming of, the ones that require faith, courage and support—the essence of what we must believe, ask for and risk to answer a calling.
Taking time to reflect on the last 15 years of my life, I notice some of my biggest failures have helped me to get quiet and reflect. In many ways, taking a risk to make a major change, such as a career shift, is an opportunity to be authentic. I can’t tell my students to follow their dreams and take risks if I live a safe existence, sanitized by fear. A life of meaning requires letting go and inviting transformation to happen; transitions require discernment and faith, a deep knowing that there is enough, that God will sustain us, and that we are meant to fall down and help each other up again.