November 15, 2002
No Fatal Errors
Covering Your Missteps,
Rebounding from Setbacks
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There are no bad notes, only bad resolutions.”

If there is a liberating concept in music, this is it--the cardinal principal of improvisation.

The musician who improvises plays a spontaneous sequence of notes that fits well with a given song, even though it may bear little relation to the melody. The most thrilling part of improvising is discovering that any note you play, no matter how unintentionally sour, can still work fine in your solo, if you resolve it right. This usually involves no more than moving up or down in the scale to a note that sounds pleasing against the chord being played. An effective resolution leaves the listener assuming the discordant note was part of a transition you intended.

Blunders, when handled properly, can add an imaginative edge to an improvised solo--even improve it. While there are other principles to master in effective improvising, this one is at the heart of it--that any mistake can be redeemed.

It is at the heart of effective living as well. There is no role we assume, no responsibility we take on, no relationship we enjoy, no dream we pursue, where we don’t make numerous missteps. To say we have feet of clay is putting it mildly. Mistakes are the stuff of life--so much so that for some of us, embarrassment is our constant companion. As much as anything else, the degree to which we believe our blunders can be corrected determines our success in all of these areas. Without a healthy assumption that the “bad notes” we play in life can be resolved, we’ll cave in to discouragement at many points, and miss the ingenious ways God makes it possible for us to improvise.

Many of us are quick to think our mistakes are irreversible. To fail at one point in an undertaking means failure in the whole of it. “Fatal error” flashes in our mind when we blunder, as blatantly as it does on our computer screen when Windows crashes (thank you, Microsoft, for giving us a fresh term to feed our negative self-talk about life itself). The tragedy with fatal-error thinking is that it shuts down our creative process. Convinced there are no solutions, we don’t look for any, then we act in such a way that our expectation of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s hard enough when we don’t regard a setback as our own fault. Discouragement, and fears that God and life have turned against us, can make us want to give up. Yet when we believe we are to blame for what’s happened, the challenge of rebounding is greater still. The conviction that we’ve blown it dampens our confidence that we have the ability to turn things around. It can leave us thinking we deserve to fail, and that God isn’t interested in helping us. The result can be--inertia, where failure occurs by default.

Fatal-error thinking may lead us to conclude unnecessarily that:

A thoughtless remark we uttered has forever doomed a good relationship

A foul-up in a project at work has sunk our prospects for promotion

A failed midterm has destroyed our chance to pass the course

A bad investment has fated us to an impoverished retirement

The assumption that such missteps are catastrophic can discourage us so greatly that we make no effort to fix the problem we’ve created. Yet mistakes like these often can be rectified with gratifying results: An apology strengthens the relationship; learning from our mistake and staying focused on the project impresses our boss and wins the promotion; analyzing why we failed the midterm gives us the insight to trump the final--and the teacher discounts the earlier grade; dumping the bad stock clears our mind to see new options for investing, which in time yield a strong return.

Of course, life doesn’t always serve up such supremely happy endings. Yet we’ll never know unless we try. And when it’s our custom to earnestly try to correct our mistakes, we always position ourselves for many welcome surprises over time.

The Real-Life Challenge

Last week a music teacher friend of mine returned from a coffee break to her classroom, expecting to find it empty. Instead, it was filled with first-graders, who had arrived several minutes early for music class. Annoyed, Janine bluntly remarked to the students, “There are two clocks in this room. Why did you come in here before 11:00 a.m.?”

Later that day Millie, the first-grade teacher, e-mailed Janine. “How could you criticize these students for arriving early, when they were sitting quietly and politely?” Millie began her missive, which she copied to the principal and vice principal. “You should have complimented them for their good behavior. I’m hurt by your insensitivity.”

Janine now faced a predicament so common in our fast-paced modern workplace: fallout with a co-worker that could easily harden into a permanent rift. Janine knew Millie had her point. The students had been behaving well. Janine had overreacted to their early arrival, and at least should have commended them for their quietness and patience.

At the same time, Janine felt Millie was inconsiderate to address such a sensitive matter by e-mail, let alone include the principals. Millie should have spoken with her first--and alone--then informed the principals only if Janine’s response wasn’t satisfactory. Besides, the students did come early, catching Janine off-guard and robbing her of precious minutes she needed to prepare. Janine’s irritation was justified, even if she hadn’t expressed it appropriately.

Janine now had three options: (1) to admit her mistake to Millie and apologize; (2) to defend her position, and criticize Millie for embarrassing her by including the principals in her e-mail; (3) to make no response to Millie at all--just stonewall and let bad feelings simmer.

So many in Janine’s position would have chosen option 2 or defaulted to option 3. Janine chose the high road. She e-mailed Millie an apology, with copies to the principal and vice principal. Janine made no effort to defend herself. She admitted she should have praised, not reprimanded the students, and expressed regret that she spoke to them impulsively.

Then, the following day, Janine sent flowers to Millie’s home with another note of apology. That evening Millie phoned Janine at home. She was stunned, she said, with Janine’s gestures of apology, and Millie was sorry now for how she had personally handled things. The next day Millie approached Janine at school, talked with her further and hugged her. Their friendship is stronger now, and their working relationship will clearly benefit as well.

Janine’s response to Millie demonstrates the alternative to fatal-error thinking. She turned a potentially costly mistake at work into a success through the thoughtful steps she took to correct the problem. Hers is a good example of how our mistakes can sometimes be resolved so effectively that the quality of our life is improved in the process.

Swallowing Our Pride

Janine redeemed herself in a delicate situation and won back the friendship of an offended co-worker, because of the conciliatory way she handled Millie’s complaint. What enabled her to make such an appropriate response, more than anything, was an impressive ability to quickly swallow her pride. Within a few minutes of receiving Millie’s e-mail, she determined to admit her own fault and to approach the problem as hers and not Millie’s. Once she had reached this point, the rest was easy.

Swallowing our pride is usually the greatest obstacle we face in rebounding from a personal failure, and this is where we typically get stuck. Contrition is most difficult when it requires admitting we were wrong--which is seldom fun to do, and never as enjoyable as reveling in being right. Sometimes, facing up to our own fault is excruciating.

Nothing helps us more to get over this hurdle than believing we will benefit by admitting our mistake and taking steps to correct it. The improvising metaphor is encouraging to keep in mind, for it inspires us to believe that humbly addressing our failure will bring positive results. Determining what these benefits are likely to be, and then focusing on them, can give us the heart to be contrite. We can eat humble pie without getting indigestion.*

It helps us too to be aware of different points at which swallowing our pride may be necessary. While some of them are obvious, others are less so. They may include:

1. When we’ve hurt or offended someone or betrayed their trust, and need to apologize. Most of us face this situation more often than we would like. Intentionally or not, we’ve wounded someone by something we’ve said or done, and then begin to wake up to the consequences. Swallowing our pride can be especially difficult in this case, for it means admitting not only to ourselves but to someone else--maybe to a group of people--that we were wrong.

Scripture gives us strong inspiration to take this step in the parable Jesus told of the son who wasted his inheritance (Lk 15:11-23). After living irresponsibly for some time, and squandering the money his father had entrusted to him, he finally “came to his senses.” In a profound paradigm shift, he determined, “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’” The young man followed through. Returning home and humbly apologizing to his father brought results far beyond his expectations--joyful reconciliation with his father, a family celebration and a vast improvement in his lifestyle. It is one of the Bible’s most moving examples of the improvising principle put to life, and a serious personal failure’s being beautifully resolved.

2. When we’ve acted irresponsibly, but still have opportunity to make amends. In other cases, we’ve failed to fulfill a commitment to others or ourselves, but still have a reasonable chance to turn things around. We may have slacked off in a project at work, with responsibilities at home, or assignments as a student. We face the challenge then of admitting to ourselves, and possibly others, that we’ve failed. We may owe some apologies as well, or need to seek forgiveness from God. Often, though, the hardest part is finding the heart to put our hand back to the plow. It can be easier to cave in to futility, thinking, “I’ve already blown it so badly, what chance do I now have to repair things?” Swallowing our pride may involve saying no to futility, and believing God will reward our rededication of effort.

What we so often discover, when we re-commit ourselves to an abandoned priority, is that others rally to encourage us and support our campaign to get our life back on track. We usually find the effort is much more than worth it. And we’re often surprised at how successfully we’re able to resume the neglected responsibility.

3. When we’ve shown an error in judgment and need to own up to it. At other times, we’ve made a bad decision or judgment, even though we may have acted responsibly and from good intentions. Swallowing our pride means acknowledging our own fallibility, or our capacity to misinterpret God’s will.

David passionately wanted to build a temple for God, and he made serious plans. Yet God informed him, through the prophet Nathan, that while his intentions were noble, the project didn’t fit his temperament. He should allow his son Solomon to carry it out during his reign instead. David fortunately had the humility to put the brakes on his ambition. But the fact that he had embraced this goal so strongly proved greatly beneficial in the years ahead, for David took many steps to prepare and inspire Solomon for the task. David’s shifting so naturally from director of this mammoth undertaking to motivator is one of Scripture’s rich examples of effective improvising in life. It’s also a profound reminder of the benefits that can come from humbly accepting a change in direction that God wants us to make.

4. When we need to abandon a losing situation. In other cases, we need to leave a situation or relationship that, perhaps in spite of our best efforts, just isn’t working for us. The challenge we face in these situations is that a loss of any kind, even if we know it’s necessary, can be a blow to our pride. We instinctively attach greater value to our losses than to our successes; the pain we feel at losing $1,000 is greater than the joy we experience at winning that same amount, for instance. This all-too human tendency is termed “loss aversion” in the financial world. It’s shown by the investor who holds onto a losing stock way beyond a sensible point instead of selling it.

We can be hampered by loss aversion in any area of life. It may seem easier to stay in a bad relationship than to break it off, for example. The antidote to loss aversion--in investing or any area--is learning to appreciate the benefit of “cutting our losses.” This concept is a redemptive one, for it implies that we can limit the damage in a losing situation by making a clean break with it--and that doing so will free us to see a positive new direction to take.

Jesus stressed the importance of cutting losses to his disciples, when he instructed them to kick the dust off their feet and depart any town that wouldn’t accept them. He knew the tug of pride they would experience in such cases--that they would be inclined to stay and try too hard to win over unsupportive people. Kicking off the dust gave them an effective way to swallow their pride and vent their hurt feelings. And because it symbolized leaving all vestiges of the town behind them (even the dust), it helped inspire the courage to leave determinedly, go elsewhere and make a fresh start.

5. When we need to turn away from self-pity in order to make a new beginning. There’s another angle to swallowing our pride that we can easily overlook. When we’ve made a mistake, or suffered a setback or loss, we may take too much pleasure wallowing in self-pity. There may be obvious steps we can take to improve things, yet we hold back, not wanting to leave the “comfort zone” of our unhappiness. We may take pride, too, in announcing to others that our situation is beyond hope, and not wish to rob ourselves of the basis for this assessment.

We may feel angry with others or with God for our predicament as well. We want others to feel guilty for our misfortune, so staying as we are is our way of punishing them or of getting back at God. An excessive desire to own our own life may also keep us stuck in a discouraging situation, if we believe that breaking out of it would gratify others who are rooting for things to get better for us.

Each of these is a point where we may have to swallow our pride, if we’re to let go of self-pity enough to make a successful new beginning. Failing to break the bounds of pride in these cases, ironically, may keep us from doing what underneath we most want to do.

The lame man by the pool of Bethesda is a classic case of someone who had grown entrenched in the inertia of self-pity (Jn 5:2-9). He took pleasure in blaming others for his predicament. “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Jesus asked him bluntly, “Do you want to get well?” He poses that question to us more often than we realize, hoping to jog us out of defeatist thinking. Grasping Christ’s greater vision for our life, and desiring its benefits, can give us the heart to accept his solutions, even if we must let go of certain benefits of staying hurt.

6. When we need to ask for help from others. Life presents us constantly with the need to seek others’ help, yet many factors hold us back. We may fear imposing on them, or dread the possibility they’ll say no. Yet simple pride often deters us as well; we don’t like admitting we are incapable of solving a problem on our own, and need other’s assistance.

In fact, others are typically more willing and available to help us than we assume, and many are pleased to have the chance to be useful--especially when we’re appreciative. Others’ assistance is usually indispensable in reaching our important goals, and it’s often the critical factor in resolving our mistakes effectively. Making it our practice to ask for others’ help when we need it greatly expands our options in every area of life, and reduces the burden of every challenge.

7. When we need to ask for help from Christ. The same reservations that make us hesitant to ask for others’ help can also discourage us from asking for God’s. Which brings us to yet another point where swallowing our pride is essential. Here, Scripture warns us graphically, “You have not because you ask not” (Jas 4:2). Christ so often waits until we ask for his help before providing it--in order to strengthen our dependence upon him, and to deepen our appreciation of the importance of prayer.

The corollary is that he is abundantly more willing to meet our deepest needs and help us resolve our most thorny problems than we can remotely imagine. Asking his help can make all the difference in resolving our “fatal errors” successfully. He can be trusted to show us a way out--even when we’re clearly to blame for the problem we face.

Even when we’ve blown it severely, and our world is falling apart.

Even when we’re certain we’ve made the mistake of our life.

Or, to say it more positively: on those occasions filled with promise, when we’ve stumbled and it’s time to improvise.

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