Put a Line Through It. On Mistakes, Messes, and Moving On
by Jennifer Paros
We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.
~ Carl Jung
When I was in high school, I had an English teacher with some very specific ideas of how we were to write. For a time, in fact, some of us received surprisingly poor grades, as we hadn’t yet grasped the particular form she required. Though I felt resentful of her somewhat rigid system, one rule she imposed was okay. If we made a mistake we were simply to put a line through it – one line – not a series of lines, not a scribble, not a patch of black. She just wanted a line. Of all her requirements, this was the easiest to fulfill, as well as the most liberating to apply.
I thought of my English teacher the other day while watching my son write, make a mistake, and emphatically try to scratch it out of existence. I encouraged him to just put a line through it. It is, I think, a good and logical approach to all mistakes. No making a big thing; no perseveration, no wearing ourselves out (and, potentially, the paper, our will to live, a friend, spouse, or therapist). Put a line through it and move on. There’s nothing more to be done, and if we persist, we’ll only turn a mistake into a mess. The mistake was made, but we still have more to say; and what we have to share is much more important.
In creating a story, a picture, or anything, it is almost impossible to delineate between mistakes and process. Mistakes are an integral part of the process; they’re drafts, attempts, and experiments. But in other areas of life, mistakes or “failures” seem damning. if the process of which they are a part goes unrecognized. Context is important and the context of any experience involves learning, discovery, and evolution. When a mistake is seen in its natural habitat, its value becomes apparent and its occurrence, hopefully, more easily understood, and benefited from.
While trying to fall asleep at night, my mind sometimes floods with mistakes I think I made – not just from that day, but from my entire life. My wrongness plays out in multiple incarnations: this strained exchange, that overreaction, this erratic behavior, that stupid thing I said. The re-running of my negative judgment on these scenarios is a (misguided) strategy to obliterate what I fear is the unforgivable and unlovable in me. In returning to the scene of the crime, I am hoping to stumble upon my innocence and win my release. But there’s a reason why, when we take a wrong turn en route to a destination, we don’t continue driving up and down that same street – it keeps us from going where we really want to be.
You make mistakes. Mistakes don’t make you.
~ Maxwell Maltz
Recently I was watching The Great British Baking Show – a competition between accomplished home bakers. In one episode, a contestant had trouble with her cake – the pudding element didn’t set. When she removed her dessert from its pan, it started collapsing and oozing. While the judges made their rounds evaluating other cakes, she awaited her turn, the sinking confection before her. The image of her sitting there struck me. That’s just how it goes sometimes: things don’t always work. The good news is we’re not the cake. We create stuff but we’re not the stuff we create; we’re more than any loss or win, because we always have more to offer.
It’s not consistently easy to accept the reality of what we consider mistakes. Though a fallen cake seems less difficult to acknowledge than, say, a felony, if we’re looking for our value in what we do, any mistake can seem like cause for much self-condemnation. With this confusion about our worth, we become imprisoned by mistakes. We are more likely to hold onto them and identify with them because we continue valuing ourselves from the outside in.
In life, those serving time in actual prisons are made aware of their mistakes and often equated to them. Interestingly, when given the opportunity for higher education, their recidivism rate decreases – meaning that mistakes are less likely to be repeated. In offering people the opportunity to learn, we validate their ability to learn and their natural state as works in progress, instead of finished failures.
We are all works in progress. And a mistake seen in this light is just part of our movement forward – and much easier to put a line through.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.