Making Mistakes - The Only Way To Learn
We live in a perfectionistic society. This is apparent in so many facets of life. From photoshopped instagram models to 5.0 high school graduates, Olympic gymnastics judging, sports scouting, SAT test scores, College GPA, autotune, throwing away perfectly good produce because of a few brown marks on it, etc. The list goes on.
Why are we so perfectionistic? Some people blame social media for all of it. Some people blame the baby boomers. Some people blame this generation. Still others blame some other reason. I blame fallen human nature.
It is human nature to find patterns in chaos, to observe and improve. We’re always thinking of ways to do things better. How can we get from here to there faster than a horse? How can we read at night without needing a candle? How can we cure this disease? Human life has flourished because of these questions. Living conditions have steadily improved. The average age of death has increased dramatically. People don’t die from the flu anymore. It’s ultimately a good thing, our intellect. Actually, it’s an amazing thing. But it has it’s downsides as well.
Our tendency to notice patterns and make improvements can become really dangerous when we become too focused on what’s wrong instead of the whole picture. Musicians may be the worst at this. How many times have you seen a musician perform a song and do an awesome job and then when you go to tell them they were awesome they are the first to point out every little detail they got wrong? “I was flat in the chorus. I missed the chord change to the bridge. I screwed up the solo. I didn’t warm up before.” Blah blah blah. They are so focused on what they did wrong that they missed the fact that the whole room was captivated by what they did awesomely.
Maybe you’re not a musician, but you have experienced this before. Maybe you’ve gotten frustrated at yourself when you missed one question on a test at school instead of celebrate the 99 you got right. Maybe you quit playing a sport because you couldn’t play it “good enough” instead of just enjoying it. Maybe you go to town on your eyebrows and you want the very last little hair to be perfect even though nobody else is going to notice, all they’re going to see is your pretty face. Maybe you’re annoyed that your teeth aren’t perfectly straight even though your laugh is infectious. Or you become embarrassed about that tiny little stain on your shirt that nobody else can spot because they’re distracted by your awesome style, or more realistically the stain on their shirt. Whatever your particular things are, you have experienced this before.
How does this make us feel usually? Well, in the words of Tony the Tiger, “GREEEAAAAT!” Ha. Just kidding — pretty terrible. We tend to measure how much value we have as human beings based on how well we perform or how perfect our record is, or how perfect we look. And when we’re constantly trying to be perfect we naturally shift our focus to what we’re doing wrong so that we can correct or improve it. Nothing robs us of more joy and freedom than perfectionism!
Unfortunately, this pattern of thinking can infect every aspect of our lives. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve allowed perfectionism to invade your spiritual life with Christ. How often do we value our relationship with God by how well we perform at keeping His commandments?
If we’ve allowed perfectionism to infect our spiritual life, we often go through this cycle of extreme effort to be sinless, failure and despair, followed by even more effort, failure and despair. This kind of mentality is often accompanied by a judgmental spirit, constantly pointing out the tiny failures in others to distract from the lurking reality of our own moral failings. It’s a downward spiral of shame and guilt. Ultimately it ends with giving up and giving in to sin completely, or giving up on believing in God because we just can’t bear the thought of failing Him again. There’s a name for this kind of thing. It’s called scrupulosity.
“Scrupulosity is characterized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. It is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning.” Its use as a word dates back to the 1600s. Needless to say, this is not a new concept. People have been perfectionists since the beginning. Even the Pharisees could have been characterized as perfectionist jews.
The pharisees viewed relationship with God as one of rules, regulations, punishment and shame. They were completely fixated on keeping every commandment and would place even extra burden on people to ensure that a commandment wasn’t broken. In addition to the 10 commandments, they added 616 more. They had harsh punishments for people who broke commandments, such as stoning people caught in adultery. They considered “sinners” low class citizens. It was probably difficult for Jews in the time of Jesus to see God as love, loving, forgiving or anything other than a dominant ruler waiting to inflict punishment upon any sinner. Unfortunately, sometimes we christians in today’s world have a hard time seeing God as anything other than a punisher as well.
BUT THIS IS NOT GOD. THIS IS NOT HOW GOD IS! THIS IS THE GOSPEL MESSAGE! JESUS CAME TO SAVE, TO GIVE LIFE, TO SET FREE, NOT TO PUNISH, SHAME OR CONDEMN.
As a music teacher, I have taught countless students how to play guitar and various other instruments. Nothing has taught me more about my relationship with God than teaching someone how to play an instrument. I used to demand that my students do things perfectly. I would stop them in the middle of an exercise if they made a mistake. I was quick to point out what they did wrong in an exercise. I would show them how to do it correctly. But I learned rather quickly that this approach didn’t really work well. Students felt terrible about themselves during and after their lessons. I was shocked at how sensitive some kids can be to this kind of thing. I have had many students cry because they thought they were terrible musicians. I quickly changed my method of teaching and ensured the students that were upset that I care about them and I’m here to help them. I taught them to be patient with themselves. But imagine if I didn’t do that.
What if I continued to point out the tiniest flaw in everything they did? What would happen? They would feel terrible about themselves. They would either put pressure on themselves to do it perfectly and then feel awful at every little mistake, or they would quit. And they certainly wouldn’t like me or feel loved by me.
I learned that I need to let go of perfectionism when teaching students. Let them make mistakes. Focus on what they are doing correctly and praise them for it. Inspire them to feel good about themselves and their playing so that they decide for themselves that they want to improve their strumming or chords or whatever because they want to be better all on their own. Allow them to be free to enjoy what they are doing. They will notice when something isn’t right. And of course at times I do have to point things out and make adjustments, but I do so with love and kindness, with patience, and always sandwiched between things they did well.
God views us in a similar way, but with even more patience, love and compassion. I could never love a student as much as a parent loves their own child. And a parent could never love his own child as much as God loves us.
I’m going to change the subject a little bit here. It seems unrelated but bear with me.
How does a child learn how to walk? Think about it. Does the parent give them a long lecture about how to do it with every little tiny footstep movement? No. The parent lets the child try and fail, try and fail, until finally the child learns how to walk. It takes time, a long time. First they try to stand and fall. They try again and fall. Then they try again and can stand for about 10 seconds before they fall. Then 30 seconds. Then a minute. Then they can stand. Then they take one step and fall. Then 2 steps. Then 10. Then they can walk, but even then it takes years of walking and falling before a child can consistently walk without falling.
How does the parent react to this? Does the parent shame and punish the child when they try and fail? No. Does the parent think any less of the child when they fall? No. Does the parent love the child any less? No. Does the parent doubt that the child will ever learn how to walk? No. The parent is confident the child will learn how to walk. They can see the whole picture that the child can’t. The parent isn’t worried about it. What happens when the child has a particularly bad fall? The parent swoops in to pick the child up, provide comfort and nurturing, kiss boo boos and provide their presence to let the child know they are okay, they are loved, and everything is going to be fine. But does the parent hold their hands and prop them up constantly so that the child never learns to walk on his own? No.
This might be my favorite metaphor for our relationship to God and sin. When we sin, it’s like the child learning how to walk. God doesn’t think any less of us. He doesn’t love us any less. He doesn’t even think of punishing us. He knows we’ll eventually get it if we keep trying. And even if we don’t (some kids have disabilities), He will still love us.
So next time you sin, remind yourself that you are learning how to walk. God is there as your loving parent. He’s confident you will get it with His help. Trust the process. Failing is the only way to learn. And by all means, please be patient with yourself.
Throughout the week, whenever you’re tempted to focus on something you did wrong, shift the focus to something you did right. Try to see the whole picture, not just the stain on your shirt. Also, whenever you make a mistake, however big or small, instead of beating yourself up about it, try saying to yourself “oops I made a mistake. I’m only human.”