The Power of (Admitting Your) Mistakes


Giving Back the Absences Between Us.

I once knew a girl whose father had, when she was just a little child, left her mother one night without warning or explanation, who grew up to be a young woman that was always seeking that absent father. She sought him in bad relationships, where neither person could give the other what they needed, a sense of belonging and strength, not neediness and fear, and so soon they turned poisonous. She sought him in rage against her mother and bitter competition with everyone she met. And she sought him ultimately, in opiate bliss, which, she discovered, could take her away — but only for a few minutes at a time.

One day, her father came back into her life, as we say. “Came back” — but can something lost return so easily? Still, she was electrified, ecstatic, expectant, and a little afraid. At last, the thing she’d longed for all her life had appeared, just like that. A father’s love. Only it turned out not to be so simple. Something unsaid and unsayable stood between them. He could never understand her bad habits, and she could never understand why he was so unforgiving, distant, cold. A great struggle seemed to erupt between them, daily fights, nightly screaming contests, bitter anger, fury, rejection, passing one from one to the other.

Until, at last, one night, things came to a broken place, which people only know later as a turning point. The father said, at last, breaking down, weeping, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I never should have left you when you were little. It’s my fault that you grew up without a father. It’s my fault, and I hope that you can forgive me, one day.”

And do you know what?

At that precise moment, as if midnight had turned to a perfect spring day, as if the oceans themselves wrapped their arms around her, as if the stars began to rain down, the young woman was healed. She went to rehab, and had counseling, and so on. But the true moment of grace was just that split second, which was like a rebirth. All her guilt and shame lifted right then, forever. All that came after was merely a helping hand. Everything was different: their smiles, their laughter, their tears. She was innocent again, and strangely, in his guilt, he was redeemed. And so the struggle between them ended at once.

She’d needed all along, only this: to hear her father admit his mistake. At that instant, with those words, something like a tiny miracle occurred: he became a father, at last, and she became a daughter. What could be greater than that?

Now. I’ll continue the story in a moment. First I want to extract some meaning. What is a “mistake”, really? Why is it so hard for us to admit that we’ve made them? What’s the best thing that we can do for those we love, and for ourselves?

A mistake is a lack, an absence, of something, that we should have given someone. It’s true to say that we can hurt people with our words and actions and deeds, but it’s truer to say that even those only conceal things that we should have given people, but didn’t, whether respect, truth, integrity, forgiveness, hope, love. Should have: when we say that we care for people, even in small ways, our three jobs are to see them, hold them, and know them. And to say we have made a mistake is also to say that we have failed to do those things, and now those people, who needed to be seen, held, known, desperately miss having had these gifts of the heart.

These gifts of the heart. If you and I don’t give them to people in the ways that we should, those people will miss them, long for them, desperately need them forever, and seek them in more and more harmful ways. Did you know that? Just like the girl and her father, a heart will always have an empty place in it. And in that way, it will ache terribly, until at last it throbs with despair, and needs to be numbed.

What is a wound? A wound is a missing thing, an absence, a lack. And in just this way, to fail to see, know, and hold people is an absence they will forever carry with them. What grows in the absence of the gifts of the heart? What grows in darkness? You know it, because all of us have been failed in some way by those we love. Anger, fear, shame, guilt, rage: these are the bitter fruits that grow in our empty places. They whisper and sing to us of our littleness, our inadequacy, our smallness, our helplessness.

And so our mistakes don’t just wound people: they also limit us from really having meaningful relationships with the very people we’ve wounded, who, strangely enough, are precisely those we love most, so we cheat ourselves of days and moments filled with searing happiness and joy so intense it hurts a little, from growing and maturing into the lives we were meant to have, in the way that the father was meant to be a father, but wasn’t, until.

But wasn’t, until. The truth is this. Our mistakes are incredibly powerful things. Perhaps the most potent things we have at all. They hold the power to “heal”. But what does that really mean? To utterly transform, dramatically change, totally renew, give birth to again. Remember my story? The father became a father at last, and the daughter became a daughter. The admission gave birth to a whole new relationship, one that both had always longed for, only neither never knew how to say the unsaid things between them. That is what human growth is, not Soulcycle, sorry. Only admitting the mistake could shine a light on the empty places of both their hearts, where so much darkness had grown. Such a radical transformation, that changed so many lives forever, with so few words. The gentle and awesome power of admitting mistakes.

So what happened next? Well, the father was silent for a while. “I was”, he said, “young and hurting myself. I never knew how to be a father, and I didn’t think I could be. My parents told me I’d never be anything or anyone, and I just wanted to run away and hide from the world. I never believed in myself at all. I know that’s not an excuse. I just want you to know me. Really know me.” Ah, how beautiful, for all things which are true are beautiful. Not because he rationalized or justified. He told the story of him with just the simple, plain, aching words he had. And this was vital too, in this remarkable story of dramatic transformation and change.

We say that we should “own our mistakes”. Not quite. We must share our mistakes. And to really share a mistake is also to share the path that led you to that bridge you could never cross, the monsters that taunted and hounded you, the abysses that frightened you, the mountains which daunted you. Only then can another person really be held, seen, and known by you. The real you. All of you. Otherwise who is holding them, knowing, seeing them? Not all of you. Just a mask you’re wearing. To admit a mistake is to share one’s wounds, too, one’s own absences, voids, lacks, and thus, perhaps, both people see this much: pain is a burden passed down through the generations, which only ever eases when we admit our mistakes.

To admit our mistakes. Not just to acknowledge them, hoping for mercy, veiling our regret. But show ourselves to the world, naked, anew. In the moment that we can do that, we are finally here with people at last. Then they really exist to us, because we, finally, have allowed ourselves to exist. And then, and only then, can this thing called really grow between us, through us, with us: the father became a father at last, and the daughter could become a daughter, remember?

The gentle, awesome power of mistakes. It’s the most life-giving thing of all, to give back our absences. Of course, it’s difficult work to admit them. And yet, when you’re stuck, paralyzed, trapped, I wonder: maybe, just maybe, are there mistakes that, deep down, to keep on growing, into all the people you were meant to be — father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, boss, manager — you need to admit? Even the stars flicker.

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