Why can’t people admit to making a mistake?
Most people never say, “I’m sorry.”
Instead of admitting complicity to hurtful behavior, villains occasionally repent via gift-giving; and, out of the blue we find a bargain bouquet of daisies on our doorstep or a jar of homemade jam on our desk. “Where did this come from?” we ask.
An acquaintance of a friend of a friend of mine once felt compelled to air my dirty laundry to an intimate group of dinner party guests. Fortunately or not, I found myself elsewhere at the moment enjoying a marvelously naïve time, not knowing that someone found it necessary to scandalize me. Of course, bad news travels faster than the speed of light, and it wasn’t long before I found out what happened. Needless to say, I felt crushed for at least an hour or two, recovering quickly after realizing that a leopard can’t change its spots any more than a vitriolic person can find something kind to say about someone. In time, a different friend of a friend of a friend of mine spilled the beans of my misery to the guilty person.
A few months later I received an anonymous gift — a coupon for a free meal at a local greasy spoon. No note. No return address. Nothing indicated who conferred this curious award upon me. Not knowing what to do, I saved my little coupon, deciding to validate it only after I figured out why I acquired this free, quizzical meal in the first place. Did I have a secret admirer, who knew just how much I enjoyed eating at greasy spoons? Was it an eleventh-hour promotional scheme devised to keep a failing restaurant open? Maybe someone sent it to the wrong person, making me feel guilty as I pictured a poor, famished person pacing around their mailbox, waiting for this long-desired-for coupon to arrive. Eventually, I decided that this coupon for the free meal involved that venomous acquaintance of a friend of a friend of mine who scandalized me at the dinner party. Although not sure of this, I decided that if I ever encountered that person, I’d say to them, “You know, life is weird. Some idiot sent me this stupid coupon for a crummy free meal at the worst dive in town. I wouldn’t eat at that joint if they paid me.”
While most never say, “I’m sorry,” fewer say, “I made a mistake.”
For the life of me, I cannot understand why making mistakes and admitting to them creates such a problem. Personally, I consider making mistakes a necessity and even the right and the privilege of someone willing to take risks. My life stands as a testimonial to mistake-making. If I make no mistakes in a day, I believe I must be dead. And, if I ever perform a task, teach a class, or preach a sermon perfectly (which I can happily say rarely occurs), I grow anxious, convinced it went well because I somehow avoided delving into a topic’s depths sufficiently, not risking discovery of those areas where my ignorance becomes glaring. Most often, when I research matters, I plummet into alarmingly arid regions, near-fatal currents, and mind boggling eddies, where my survival due to lack of knowledge becomes questionable. At those times, I can choose to flee to safety, or I can compel myself to take more risks to learn more. Most of the time, I make the latter choice, taking more risks in order to authenticate the material, making my work meaningful. On the other hand, so many find mistake-making so unconscionable that the words, “I made a mistake,” become impossible. I don’t understand.
I — and at least one other pastor — heartily believe in two powerful aspects of worship, funerals, weddings or baptisms. First, we believe no perfect worship service, funeral, wedding or baptism exists. All life, regardless of good fortune, cleverness or prominence, floats upon the eternal flotsam and jetsam of imperfection. Imperfection reigns supreme always. That includes us, who lead church services. You show me a perfect person who lives in a perfect world, and I’ll send you a coupon for a free meal at a greasy spoon. Second, and more importantly, because we live in an imperfect world, how else can God elbow a way into participating in our imperfect worship service, funeral, wedding or baptism unless the pastor, the liturgist, or someone else blunders, opening that needed path for the loving God of all imperfect people to join in the company of worshipers in an authentic and meaningful manner, telling them, “It’s all good. Glad to be here with you.”? If we perfected our worship, funeral services, weddings and baptisms, who’d need God? We’d be perfect. Right?
And so, given the way that people work, what are we to do when we’ve been scandalized?
Well ... if you receive a coupon in the mail for a free meal at a greasy spoon, use it, knowing all the while you’re eating delicious but unhealthful cuisine because someone somewhere out there aired your dirty laundry. It’s all right, pass the ketchup. And when you receive a cheap bouquet of daisies on your doorstep (which you will one day), smell them once, throw them in the trash, but never let on to the fact that you know someone feels guilty, because it may prove to be useful information one day. And, if you discover the identity of the person who disparaged you and then put a jar of homemade jam on your desk, take delight telling them one day, “I got this beautiful jar of really good homemade jam from someone. Unfortunately, I’m diabetic so I fed it to my dog.”
Pastor Tom recently came from Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, Utah to Cortez, where he pastors First United Methodist Church. He’s a graduate of Eden Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins University.