Screw ups, revisit

On Monday, my post exposed the fact that we are all flawed — not one of us is perfect. This re-post (from September 2019) further explores that idea and the benefit of being in community.

We’re pretty hard on ourselves, aren’t we?

Last week, when the phone rang at work, I answered and gave the answers the caller was looking for. I stumbled a little bit, because the call had interrupted me in the middle of another task, but I heard the mother’s heart of questions, and I gave her honest answers. However, I didn’t follow protocol and provide only the prescribed answers I was supposed to give on an initial phone call. Instead, I provided a few bits that are usually reserved for a lengthier conversation so that they can be provided in context. In carelessly oversharing, I might have said too much and gotten in the way of a student receiving the help he needs.

Ask me if I scolded myself, tried to offer excuses, or felt shame.

I think you already know the answer.

In an Instagram post, an athlete who competed over the weekend expressed the emotion that comes from a missed goal, a less-than-hoped for performance, a perceived failure. I heard frustration, disappointment, and even anger — a bludgeoning of the self for not doing better.

I see it in my students, too. Even though we celebrate every success, hooray for each minor victory, and applaud the journey of all of our students, they know when they’ve read a word incorrectly or when they’ve missed the point of a story. I see their eyes look down, their shoulders slump. I hear their internal (and sometimes external) voices saying, “Ugh! I’m so bad at this!”

And, you know, sometimes we are bad at this — all of this.

We undercook the roast. We drip bleach on the darks. We spill coffee on a white shirt. We break glasses, run over nails, and forget to pay the bills on time.

Even worse, we spend time with family and fail to look our loved ones in the eyes. We don’t ask about one another’s relationships or jobs or health, and we poke open wounds intentionally.

We screw up, make mistakes, lack empathy, and are sometimes downright mean. And when we realize it, we can really rake ourselves over the coals, can’t we? We can stay up all night rehearsing and re-rehearsing scenes, imagining what could have been different if only we’d left the roast in the oven a little longer, had put the bills on autopay, or had really leaned in to see what was going on in the lives of the people sitting right next to us.

And if we stay there too long, we can begin to believe that not only do we screw up, but we are indeed screw-ups. We are losers, miscreants, pond scum.

And once we have re-named ourselves, it becomes very easy to own that identity: I’m a screw-up, and I’m probably going to screw up more today. I don’t even know why I bother trying, I’m just going to get it wrong again. We might not say the words out loud, but we can get a pretty elaborate tape running. Or am I the only one who tells myself, “Geez, why do I even go out in public? I always say the wrong thing! I miss the point over and over again. When will I ever learn?”

The narrative can get so loud that it can drown out the still small voice that says, “Yeah. You screwed up. You’re human. Forgive yourself. Apologize to the ones you may have impacted. Try again.”

Our internal narrative is frantic — wanting to go back and un-do. Its mantra is shoulda, coulda, woulda. It refuses to believe that life can go on, that this too, shall pass, that anyone could forgive us or give us another chance.

But if we can hear the quiet voice of the One who designed second (and third and hundredth) chances, the One who can restore even the most broken of relationships, the One who forgives the unforgivable, we might just hear (and believe) a different narrative.

We might be able to tell ourselves that people make mistakes. It’s a fact. We can’t get around it. I can probably expect to make a hundred mistakes on a given day. I’m definitely going to say the wrong thing, make the wrong facial expression, and laugh at the wrong time. It’s a given. I am going to forget to pick up an item even though it’s on my list, take the wrong exit, and leave a sweater in the dryer for way too long.

And when I do, I can shrug my shoulders and say, “Yup, I blew it again,” but instead of berating myself and burying myself in shame, I can forgive myself, apologize to the ones that were impacted by my actions, and try to move forward. Of course, I can take steps to minimize my errors. I could, for instance, slow down and double-check my list. I could pause and think about my words before I let them come out of my mouth. I could stand, for a moment, in the shoes of the person in front of me, and consider her needs, her heart, her life.

And, I might find that I’m able to hear that she, too, is listening to the shoulda, coulda, woulda mantra of self-blame and that she, too, is being tempted to own the identity of screw-up. I might be able to reach out, touch her hand, and say, “It’s ok. I screw up, too.”

And, you never know, we might embrace and offer one another absolution, “You’re forgiven. I’m forgiven. We’re forgiven.”

And, acknowledging that, as humans, we are going to find ourselves in this same space over and over again, we might agree to stick close, to lean in, to walk together, even when — especially when– times get tough, and messy, and it seems like all is beyond repair.

Because on our own, we can’t always distinguish what voice we are listening to, and we might need someone to call us back from the ledge — to take our hand and remind us that we’re gonna be ok.

We are. We’re gonna be ok.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32

Calming the Storm

Yesterday morning amid the craziness of preparing for her son’s high school open house, my sister-in-love insisted that we all pause and attend a worship service.  Yes, there was plenty to do, but she really wanted to worship as a family; so we did. We left food that needed to be prepared, a house that needed to be straightened, and decorations that had yet to be placed to hear the Word of God and be changed.

We did not come back empty-handed.  At least I did not.

I have been one who has identified with Martha of Mary and Martha fame.  While Mary dutifully sits at the feet of Jesus, I am usually scurrying around fixing one more thing. In fact –full disclosure –I even suggested to my sister-in-love that if there was too much to do, we could forgo church.  (Some pastor’s wife I am, right?) No, she said, this was important to her.

It became important to me, too.

I mean, the sermon was from the classic story — the disciples and Jesus are out in the boat when a storm arises.  Jesus is sleeping soundly, and the disciples start to freak out.  “Jesus, Jesus, wake up!!!  Don’t you see the storm?” Jesus nonchalantly wakes up, says “Peace, be still,” and the storm stops. Then he looks at the disciples and says, “Uh, guys, why are you freaking out? Do you still not trust me?”

Yeah, silly disciples, do you still not trust Him?

I was feeling pretty smug until the preacher referred to St. Augustine’s suggestion that Christ is asleep within us when the storms of our lives hit.  We see the turmoil and  disruption and start to freak out. We forget that Christ is within us and fully able to calm whatever this ‘storm’ may be.  Why am I freaking out? Do I still not trust Him?

So today I was at work feeling pretty good about myself.  In each of the lessons I was leading, things were going pretty well. I was feeling confident — maybe a little too confident.

And then a storm hit.  I was working with my last student of the day and he was resisting me.  We were being silly, and we got off on a sidetrack.  He was testing my ability to bring him back. I couldn’t do it.  What’s worse is that my mentor was in the room with us.  The student was getting frustrated.  I was getting frustrated. The mentor was getting frustrated.  We limped through the rest of the session with little to no productivity.

When the session was over, I asked my mentor what she thought had happened.  What was up with the kid today?  (Surely it was him, not me!) She hypothesized a few things that could’ve been up with him and then she said, “I think you need to be firmer with him.  He is taking advantage of the fact that you haven’t been holding the line with him.”

Ouch.  I was at fault.  I did something wrong.

Now, this shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Everyone makes mistakes.  All day long I tell my students that the best learning happens when we make mistakes.  In fact, about half of the strategies I have learned at this job are for error-handling.  We praise what the student got right, then help him identify his own errors and self-correct.  In seeing his own errors, he learns how to make the correction.

That’s all that happened to me today.  I made an error, I tried to blame it on the kid, and my mentor helped me identify the real source of the problem.  So, I should just learn where the error happened so that I can prevent it in the future, right?

Well, then why do I feel so lousy? Because I think I am in charge of calming the storm!  I think that my worth and acceptance are based on what I do or don’t do, what I achieve or don’t achieve, what I get right or what I get wrong.

But they don’t!  My worth and acceptance are based on the Guy who is ‘sleeping’ within me.  And, guys, He’s not really asleep!  I have just forgotten that He is with me and that He is fully capable to calming the storm.

Well, I got home today, feeling a bit lousy about what happened with this student.  And guess what happened…a real storm showed up on the weather forecast — a severe thunderstorm warning.  I was scheduled to meet another student about twenty minutes away, but we agreed that because of the weather, we should postpone.

Well, you know, I had nothing better going on, so I did my Bible study. (Insert sigh here.) The reading for today was from Exodus 33 where God says He will not go forward with the Israelites because they are ‘stiff-necked’ (ouch).  Moses, who was way smarter than me said, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us from here.” He knew more than the disciples did.  He knew that if the Lord went with him he would have everything he needed.  He knew that if the Lord went with him, it would be known that he had found favor in God’s sight.

Have you connected the dots with me? God indeed does go with me.  He is inside of me.  His very presence declares to me and to the world that I have found favor in His sight — whether I do a good job or a lousy job with my students, whether I feel good about the way or look or not, whether I am sick or healthy, whether I am rich or poor.

When I drink in that truth — that I have found favor in His sight — the storms around me and within me calm.  I am no longer in the wind and the waves.  I am resting securely in the boat, coasting on lake, basking in the sun.

That’s what He has for us — calm, security, and basking in the sun — because He has and will continue to calm the storms.

Psalm 107:29

He made the storms be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

I got it all wrong

I got it all wrong.  And I was just trying to get it all right!

I think this goes back to my early days of school.  I was a very strong student.  I loved to learn and I was pretty good at it.  Outside of cutting with scissors and penmanship, I scored pretty much straight As all the way through elementary and middle school.  I knew what I was doing and I was usually right.  This continued on through most of high school until I hit a wall somewhere in my junior or senior year; I just didn’t care any more.  Well, actually, I cared, but less about school and more about having a job and making money.

I knew that I would have to come up with most of the money I needed for college so I started working at age 15.  I started at a small dress shop on the main street in my home town, then moved over to McDonald’s in the neighboring town, and eventually added a second job at a day care center run by the public school system.

I was making money, putting a little in the bank, and spending the rest on clothes, shoes, food, movies, and all the other things that high school students spend their money on.  Meanwhile, I was pretty good at faking it at school and still bringing home mostly As with an occasional B.  Good enough. I knew what I was doing.

But not really. I have told this story over and over to my high school students, at least this next part.  In trying to earn enough money to pay for college (and not really saving enough to make a substantial difference) I lost my focus at school.  I was still in National Honor Society; I didn’t really want to be valedictorian or salutatorian anyway.  Though apathetic, I finished in the top 11% of my class.  Why do I know I was in the top 11%?  Because my college financial aid office had a large scholarship — almost full tuition — for the student who finished in the top 10% of her class.  Yeah, I was the top 11%.  I missed a huge scholarship because I was trying (poorly) to take care of it myself.

Why do I bring this up today?  I’m 48 years old and long past high school and college. (I’m also long past paying the student loans I took out to pay that tuition.)  I bring it up because I was thinking this morning that this is my life pattern.  I see the situation, formulate my own solution, assume I’m right, and find out years later that I got it all wrong.

Let me give you another example.  While I was independently figuring out my finances in high school, I noticed that I didn’t have the petite little figure of many of my classmates,  so I decided to join Weight Watchers.  I would lose weight and become more like them.  As a matter of fact, weight loss consumed many years of my life.  Diet after diet turned into anorexia nervosa and doggone it, I became petite like my high school friends.  Yeah, I lost weight, I just couldn’t drive a car without getting in an accident or maintain any relationships outside the dedicated few who hung with me through thick and thin. (Not too punny, I know.) It took a long journey to realize I’d gotten it all wrong.  Trying to be like everyone else wasn’t the answer; learning to accept myself was the answer.

The ‘got it all wrong’ topic for today? Parenting.  I welcomed those little babies into my arms and into my heart with the intention of doing everything right.  I read books, I took classes, I built schedules, I had structure. I was going to get this right.  And, you know, I did a lot of things right, by the grace of God.  But I got some things wrong, too.   Now that my kids are all 19 and older, I am starting to reflect and notice the good, the bad, and the ugly. The things I did right and the things I did so very wrong.

But that is not the lesson for today.  Nope.  My lesson for today is that life is good, bad, and sometimes ugly.  Making the decision to work in high school didn’t ruin my life.  In fact, I learned a lot of life skills working at McDonald’s. Balancing two jobs helped me figure out how to schedule my time and how easy it is to use and misuse money.  Losing out on that scholarship showed me that there is more than one way to pay for college.  Having an eating disorder did not damage me; it shaped me.  My parenting ‘mistakes’ didn’t ruin my children, but it did allow them to see my imperfections and to recognize (hopefully) that they don’t need to be perfect either.

So am I embracing my imperfections?  I might as well!  One thing I have learned, that I know I am right about, is that I am not perfect.  I do stupid stuff.  And, yet,  miraculously I have a college education, a fairly healthy self-image (finally!), four wonderful children, a daughter-in-law, and a granddaughter (!!!).  Even though I got it all wrong.

Lamentations 3:22-23

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his mercies never fail.

They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.