Frequently, in a journey of the soul, the most precious moments are the mistakes. – John O’Donohue
Perhaps because I grew up in a church tradition steeped in preoccupation with sin and how to get sin out of our lives, perhaps also because I have discovered that most spiritual traditions intend to focus practitioners on strategies for eliminating mistakes, for learning to live so that one no longer gets tripped up by bad habits or old family dysfunction or the innate darkness of the human spirit, I am stopped in my tracks when I read something like O’Donohue’s observation. That mistakes might be cherished, rather than endlessly regretted and the subject of efforts to erase from my memory bank, is startling.
Long ago I heard the common spiritual advice to treat a mistake in the way skilled jazz artists treat wrong notes: one is charged with making the mistake “mean something,” figuring out how to have a misstep, or a wrong note, open up a creative new melodic line, a new path through life. That seemed a freeing way to incorporate mistakes into a positive frame. And I could look back at my myriad screw-ups and see how they often motivated me to make needed changes in how I was living.
But O’Donohue seems to go farther, viewing mistakes as “precious moments,” maybe even the most precious moments of all. That challenges me to honor my mistakes rather than quickly cover them up or make them right or wave them away or build a new melody out of them, all efforts which seek to transform the mistake into something other than what it originally was, a far from precious moment, a moment when I was anything but my best self.
A mistake becomes actually precious for me when I allow it to remain a mistake and, in doing so, let it stand as an expression of all that is unfinished in me, all that is vulnerable, all that is weak—in short, all that is undeniably human because humans are, ever and always, flawed creatures. My mistakes keep me from soaring, godlike above everyone around me, and in doing so keep challenging me to own the fullness of who I am, every part of myself (not just the shiny and pretty parts), to affirm all my living (not just the admirable times).
Regarding my mistakes as precious is not a perspective I have been able to adopt as yet, and perhaps never will. But I can keep O’Donohue’s notion nearby and find it comforting when I again say or do the wrong thing. At such times, regarding my flawed self as precious even with the flaws, I might offer the traditional Southern response given whenever someone makes a mess of things despite the best of intentions: “well, bless her heart.”