To err is human...
Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami , 2002-02-13
To err is human, to make a mistake only once is divine. Go beyond feeling bad about making a mistake and find out why and prevent it from happening next time. Many times a mistake happens because of not enough training, as with a child or employee.
It came up last week in the communications with various sishya - the idea of making a mistake and how we react to a mistake that we make.
Of course, the common first reaction is to feel bad, to feel sad, to get emotional and wish we had not done it. Depending on how we were raised, that sadness can be small or large. If we were raised in a way to feel bad when we made mistakes, if that is what our parents emphasized, that blame and shame, "You made that mistake! You should never have done that. How could you be so stupid?" kind of approach, then of course, as an adult when we make a mistake we feel much worse than if we were not raised that way.
But in any case, that is a natural first reaction, but we need to move beyond it. We cannot just stop there and end up feeling sad about it or extremely discouraged about it and leave the matter at that point.
I was thinking of a phrase, the one famous phrase, "To err is human but to forgive is divine." Remember that phrase? So I have created a variation on the phrase, which is, "To err is human, but to err only once is divine."
We all make mistakes. But if we can make them only once, that is better than keeping on repeating the same mistake. We have that ability, and someone who is self-reflective and focused on what they are doing, the natural reaction after becoming sad, is to think about, "How can I prevent myself from doing this again? What did I do wrong? Was I simply careless? Am I lacking certain knowledge? Why is it that I did this in the first place?" That is someone who is really striving, not just kind of living in a fog of emotion or not really being mindful.
That is the objective, to find out what is missing. Perhaps we need some knowledge, perhaps there is something we did not learn about this subject, that we need to know. Maybe we need to ask an expert or read a book. Maybe we just were not paying attention. We were thinking about one thing and doing another and that is why we made a mistake, so we need to resolve to pay more attention next time we are doing this, because there is certainly no reason we want to repeat the same mistake twice.
That is a necessary second reaction, stepping beyond just feeling bad - figuring out why it occurred and making sure it won't occur again. That is being divine. To err only once is divine, when we are on the spiritual path, we're taking our mistakes seriously and striving not to make them twice.
However even a third step is needed if other people were involved. We may have upset them in some way by this mistake. We may have just caused strained feelings, where feelings were flowing harmoniously before. If either of those situations have occurred then we need to fix the situation with the other person as the third step of having made this mistake. Perhaps an apology would be appropriate. That is the most direct way of fixing something. But if we are not that close to someone, if they are a co-worker at work, an apology may seem out of place. So just extra friendly words or a gift or some kind action that we normally would not do is a way of fixing the flow of emotional force between us to get it back to a harmonious flow. If we made a mistake that hurt someone's feelings, in that case help them let go of the hurt feelings towards us by the apology. That is the third step, when a mistake occurs, if other people are involved. Fixing emotional force.
There is even a fourth step. This is reserved for serious mistakes. Let us say, in a weak moment we did something that was dishonest. Maybe we are a student who cheated slightly on a test or an adult who fudged on our tax return. We did something that was technically dishonest and afterwards we feel bad about it. Of course we resolve not to do it. In this case, no one else was involved. So we don't have to apologize. We still feel bad about it. Well, what is needed? We need to do a penance. If after all the other corrections have been done to a mistake and we still feel bad, it means our conscience is telling us we did something that we really should not have. The way Gurudeva has taught us to compensate is we do a penance. Prostration penance of some kind but serious. Maybe we fly off to Fiji. Do a serious penance, depending on what it is. But in any case, as a result of the penance, any sense of feeling bad about it should be gone.
There is no reason we should feel bad about a mistake. We should get rid of that feeling, because we all make mistakes. It is natural to make mistakes. To err is human, so we need to accept that. That is how we learn. But when we do learn, we should feel good about having learned. We should not feel bad still. It is like in school. If we are studying mathematics and we don't quite understand something and we get it wrong, we don't feel that bad. We study a little harder and we get it right. Life is like that too. So the sense of feeling bad because of a mistake, should be gotten rid of one way or another.
These same principles regarding mistakes apply in the case of parent to child, teacher to student or supervisor to his or her staff. If a mistake is made, the elder person - the parent, the teacher, the supervisor - needs to help the younger person understand, gain new knowledge so that the person doesn't make the mistake again. That is the whole goal, to not repeat the mistake.
Quite often, that is not the response that is given. The parent doesn't sit down and figure out why the child made the mistake, take that amount of time and train the child, give the child new knowledge that the child is obviously lacking, so that the mistake isn't made again. That doesn't always happen. It is more likely to happen with a teacher because the teacher is paid to teach. The teacher knows the student made a mistake, maybe I didn't do my job. Maybe there is something I need teach the child so the child won't make the same mistake again.
So also, with a supervisor and staff. Depends on the situation, some are more prone to train than others. But if the supervisor has staff that makes a mistake, the first thought should be, "Is there something I need to train this staff in that they don't know? Are they lacking knowledge?"
I had a wonderful conversation a couple of weeks ago with Iraja Sivadas. He is in Northern California taking care of his mother there. He is teaching at a school there for emotionally disturbed children. They have learning difficulties, growing up in difficult situations. It takes extra patience to teach them. So he is having a very interesting experience there dealing with these children. Quite often, the ones that have the most trouble learning are the ones that come from the most difficult family situations, where there is divorce at a very young age and so forth. So he has the personal history file of each student and he studies that in conjunction with teaching them. When difficulties come up, when they reject his teaching and give him a bad time, he tries to understand their personal history. So he finds that very helpful in terms of helping them acquire knowledge.
He has an interesting approach to Mathematics. He is so good at it that he doesn't even need to follow the text book. He is an M.A. in Math. It is just second nature to him. It is like, a good music teacher doesn't have to follow a music training book. He just knows how to teach music. He knows how to teach math and he has come up with a way of accommodating different people's natures. He has found that he teaches each point in three different ways. He teaches three different ways to solve a specific kind of problem and one of the ways clicks with each student. He doesn't know which way will work. But there are different ways people understand mathematics. Isn't that interesting? So he presents it in three different ways and each student says, "Well of course, that way makes sense but the other two don't. Why did you even bother to teach those?" But each student will choose one of the different three ways, not the same of course. So all three ways are necessary.
It shows he is a good teacher, that he has found an effective way to convey these principles to people based upon experience. So he is an excellent teacher of the subject and I am sure, students learn more about mathematics from him than from most mathematics teachers who just follow the text book in a simple way. He's taking that principle very seriously - "If someone makes a mistake, it means I need to pass on additional information to them that they don't have so they won't make the mistake twice."