There is a saying in the 12-step Alcoholic Anonymous program that “You will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it.” And mostly this is true, except when I find myself awake in the darkest hours of a morning night defenseless against the Inner Judge who prowls the corridors of my mind, slashing the heads off any blooming optimism with his savage cane. Why am I so helpless at that dark hour? Are all the angels sleeping still?
It has set me thinking: Where did I learn that although lesser mortals may make mistakes I’m not allowed to? Of course, we were taught so many axioms as children that are downright wrong. For example: Opportunity Knocks But Once. NONSENSE! I shout. Observation and experience have shown me that so generous is Providence, so loving, so adventurous, that She offers opportunities over and over and over again; and never does She feel annoyed by our refusal to accept. “You don’t like that opportunity? She cries out tenderly, Here! Try this one instead.”
Here’s another thing that I was taught at my elders’ perfectionist knees: that mistakes are bad. Yet how many times have I made a mistake, tripped off in a completely wrong direction, only to discover the misstep was a blessing. Surely you’d think I’d know by now that mistakes have often been my friends. Either the failure taught an important lesson that success would have failed to impart, or else doors opened onto new and wondrous vistas, on opportunities unimaginable before. Moreover, mistakes are the rule in any creative endeavor, and so true is this that creativity by its very nature demands the right to risk, and that means daring to blunder, fall, mistake. “Ever tried?” wrote Samuel Beckett. “Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Recently I’ve taken up watercolor—said to be the hardest art form because you can’t easily erase mistakes, and what I find is that it is sometimes the mistakes that make the painting interesting. As for creative writing, listen: if you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t even bother. Creation is play, and playfulness requires sailing into uncharted territory, which is always a “mistake.”
My daughter tells how one day she went to a conference to hear a famous author, who was asked during the program how she wrote. “Every day,” the writer spoke thoughtfully, “I sit down at my desk. I take a breath, and I say to myself—” (my daughter leaning forward, to catch each pearl of wisdom) ‘Well, let’s see what S#%T you can come up with today.'”
Recently I have been dipping into the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and military commander who ruled from 161ce until his death by infection in 180. One of his admonitions is to allow one initial regret at having failed, then spend no more time on remorse. Apparently he doesn’t lie awake in the morning hours of dawn cringing in memory at his failures. Or else he did it so often that he had to remind himself to stop.
As I was doing now, replaying my sins of commission, sins of omission. Yet what is sin (I ask in an effort to comfort myself)? Originally the word meant no more than “to miss the mark” —as an arrow misses the bulls eye and lands on the red circle instead.
Why am I so arrogant as to think I should never do wrong? (“Should”: the very word implies more criticism.) The hawk, folding its wings to drop at 30 miles an hour on his prey, misses the mouse three quarters of the time. Does the hawk awaken in his nest at night scolded by remorse?
“There’s nothing right or wrong but thinking makes it so,” I offer Hamlet’s lines to the stalking of my Inner Judge, as he slashes the head off another chrysanthemum in the garden of my regrets. To which he answers with a sly and cunning smile, “Oh, so you approve of the Holocaust? Of murder? Thievery? Lies? Deceit?” (Which is really a low blow, I think, delivered at that painful hour when I’m defenseless against his charge.)
“Do no harm,” is the first principle of Buddhist thought, followed by, “Practice doing good.” and the third: “Activate others to practice good.”
By now the first pearly light is washing into the darkness, and with it my first shreds of courage begin to return, and also my memory of how to deal with the Inner Judge. And doesn’t it always come down to love? But before I tell you what to do, I must introduce the Way.
Years ago, when I was subject to hormonal monthly swings, and long before I knew how to avoid the temptations of the garden of rejection, I used to get horribly depressed. My dejection might last for days or even weeks while I struggled to find my way back to the white picket gate that I had opened so thoughtlessly, enticed by the risky pleasures of beating myself up.
One day I was talking to my friend Natalie about it. “What do you do,” she asked, “when you get depressed?”
“I whip myself,” I answered. “I scold and tell myself to shape up and stop whining but get to work.”
Natalie was truly shocked. “Oh no!” she told me. “You have to put your arm around your shoulder and talk baby talk to yourself. You hold and comfort yourself. You give yourself a teddy bear. Your depression will lift right away.”
The next time I felt depressed I took her advice. And to my surprise, within minutes my dejection had lifted. (Why wasn’t I told that as a girl?)
-But back to the Inner Judge who had tramped up the basement steps from the cellar of my unconsciousness to lash me this night with failings and failures and regret.
Years earlier, when I was writing, if my Judge came in too soon to tell me how horrible my work was, I’d agree: “you are absolutely right. But just now I need to create. I’ll call on you in a little while, when I’m ready to edit, revise. That;s when I need you. Right now I’m making a mess. Go back to sleep.”
It turns out all he (“the Inner Judge) wants is to know he’s been heard. “He” is trying in his own mistaken way to be a guide. It’s only when I resist that he grows violent, locks me in the closet, whips me with chains. Why do I always forget?
This night, with the dawn beginning to break open the bowl of night, I turn to him. “Thank you.” I say. “I hear you.” I drop one arm around his humped and disreputable back. “I love you.”
“Oh,” he growls. “All right.” And then he trudges back down the stairs, as happy in his disconsolate and critical fashion as he ever gets, and curls up on the rags of his bed to sleep.
I, on the other hand, leap joyfully out of bed, to face the gaiety of another morning, knowing my Inner Judge is on my side.
© Sophy Burnham, 2019.