“What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.” ~ Oscar Wilde
I am the mistress of mess-ups.
From the amoeba-shaped to the king-sized, if there’s a mess to be made I’ve been there flinging the pillows until the feathers scatter everywhere and I’m blowing the last one off the tip of my nose, thinking, “Hells bells, we’re in a hot mess now, aren’t we sweetie?”
Oh, those dratted failures. From the incidental daily ones to the intermittent big ones: I’ve lost houses, cars and money ratcheting into the six digits. I’ve messed up relationships—even the ones that come with wedding rings and children.
Those bigger messes have been followed by regrets and a ton of repair work, both internal and external. And after all this time I’ve discovered a few things about people who mess up a lot:
We are usually the people who take the risks.
Therefore, given the inherent presence of the F-word (failure) inside of risk, most of us are masters at recovery.
Not that anyone’s counting, but we also have a lot of wins, because, proportionately, taking chances means we both lose, and win, more.
But perhaps most importantly, if you’re one of these who messes up because you went out there and really did it, then you know this: we’re really alive.
Like vibrating, silly alive.
Am I talking your language yet?
Because the truth is, it’s not despite our messes that we are so silly alive, it’s because of the messes that we are.
Because without them we would not be the gritty, beautifully imperfect beings we are today, with the depth of perspectives that grow by learning from failure.
And I know the other side, that striving really hard to not mess up. It calls for perfection, which is naturally risk-averse. And I remember, when this was my focus, that I looked pretty perfect too, from the outside. And my life really was accordingly pretty free of failure. And it also kind of felt like I was dying.
And so I will share with you some of the perspectives that I’ve learned about embracing a life of taking chances where the outcome is calculated to be: unknown—and doing it with some royal flair.
1. Death sits on my shoulder.
I know, that got heavy fast. I learned this from a Buddhist monk teacher of mine. He said, precisely, “Let death sit on your shoulder.” And he was one of the happiest guys I know.
Each day I remember my mortality, and that this life, in this body, is limited and precious.
This keeps me extraordinarily grateful. Not just in those high moments when I’m planning a backpacking trip through Thailand with my kids or when the precise things I’ve envisioned show up for me.
But also in those moments when my bedroom is a cave and I don’t want to lift the duvet off my head.
In the moments when I realize not only have I lost someone I love, but they’re never coming back. And worse, they’re happier without me.
Or when life takes my vision board and smashes it in unfixable pieces.
Or when I feel the wretchedness of pain in the world around me. All these lives and their sorrows.
Still grateful. For one more day here on earth. And for my breath.
As in, I’ve just sobbed for three days straight, with the occasional break for Kleenex and a tea. And look—I’m still breathing.
I may not be wearing socks that match, but anyways, let’s brush our teeth and go for a walk.
2. I let go, or I don’t.
Both are okay. I make a persistent effort to accept exactly where I am.
“You just have to let go.” Really?
I’m practicing not running from pain, not over indulging in it either, but still stepping into each feeling that comes my way, as uncomfortable as it may be. And then investigating it.
It leaves when it’s ready. Not when I force it by “having to let go.”
And rather than tell a story about the pain, I’m also exploring, who am I without the story?
Often I end up with, “Who the hell knows?”
That’s good enough for me today.
3. I forgive myself and I try again.
Since I’ve had children, in particular, I’ve had ample opportunity to feel like a terrible, hypocritical, imperfect mess. Children, and all the people we love, give us lots of room for mess-up and recovery.
And each day I try to forgive myself.
If I just can’t that day, I do it promptly the next morning, usually over strong coffee (cream, no sugar), and I deliver my forgiveness with a little note to me, “Sweetie you’ll do better today. You really will.”
Then I make amends if needed, and I remember to congratulate myself when I do something right. Well done.
4. I immerse myself in philosophies and practices that bring sacredness, peace and joy to my life.
One of my favourite teachers, Barbara D’Angelo, likens our brains to outdated software programs. We wouldn’t keep a 20-year-old program on our computer, would we?
Yet here we are believing the same worn out ideologies and “truths” of the past 20, 30 or more years.
And our brains are a lot harder to manage than our Macs. They get hardwired with schemas that become difficult to deconstruct.
So we have to be active about it. We have to keep reading, learning, and practicing more effective programs that bring more joy and happiness to our lives and the lives of others.
That doesn’t happen by accident or wishful thinking. It happens by constant, repetitive doing.
5. I treat myself royally.
For many years I believed that my entire purpose was self sacrifice and giving to others. This belief served me when I was afraid to embrace myself wholly, as an imperfect human, who also needed a little of that tenderness and caring I was busy offering to others.
I still believe that life is about giving to others, but it begins with giving to myself. Otherwise I am depleted and unable to give anything of substance, to my children, partner, friends, community and beyond.
Treating myself royally means honouring my time for sacred practice, filling my body with goodness in the form of whole, fresh foods, exercise, and adequate rest and keeping kind and honest people in my circle.
So the next time you mess up remember this: any person who takes risks and lives a life that feels highly vibrant and inspiring knows that failure will happen. A lot.
So keep the words of the Dalai Lama in mind, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Because the upside of failure is not just the recoveries and wins, but that the lessons can be profound.
Author: Carla Poertner
Editor: Emily Bartran