An Open Letter About the Making of Mistakes

An Open Letter About the Making of Mistakes July 12, 2012

I’m always afraid of screwing up. Seriously.

That’s especially true when I’m online, because sometimes online reactions can be extreme. One little mistake, and you’re suddenly The Enemy.

I once got on the wrong side of a group of women on a feminist website, and … damn, it got nasty. Some of the nice ladies actually followed me to the comment sections of other websites to point out what a viciously sexist woman-hater I was.

I’ve made disparaging comments about tattooing, and oh boy, you do not want to rile up the tattoo-lovers. “You’re judging people by their appearance! You’re just like every other prejudiced bigot! You HATE people who have every right to express themselves, because you’re EEEEVILLLL!”

I’ve screwed up plenty of times in real life. For instance, I’ve made friendly jokes to people who were not yet friends – Example: Meeting a young man for the first time, the friend of a friend, I pop off with the jocular “Everybody calls you ‘Country’ huh? What do they call you for short?” – and made instant enemies. But that’s sort of self-limiting. Out in the real world, unless they marry into your family or work in the next cubicle at your office, it’s fairly easy to never speak to or see someone again. If they won’t accept an apology, you cut your losses and move on.

But online reactions … because they’re crowd-sourced, those are sometimes hard to get away from. And they can be especially unfriendly.

When you become The Enemy online, you aren’t just a garden variety “somebody I dislike.” No, you’re bug-sucking baby-raping butt-rot kitten-killing nuclear waste Hitler!!!

You’ve seen it. And haven’t you been just a little bit bothered that even the people with whom you agree can be so pure spitting crazy mean?

It’s that barking-from-the-porch thing that makes road rage possible. Whereas you’d be careful about flipping off a biker with your tender flesh within his arm’s reach, you’re more inclined to do it when safely strapped into a protective cocoon of glass and steel, moving down the highway at 70 miles an hour.

Online, it’s worse. In this digital arena where we’re often protected even from identification, much less location or in-the-flesh interaction, we feel very, very safe. So safe that that little meanness at the core of some (many?) of us, the meanness that wants revenge for all the slights and stings we have suffered all our lives … sees a chance to get out and do some score-settling.

To my shame, I have been on both sides of it. I have seen the Black Beast, and I have been the Black Beast.

Thinking about it right now – Gah! – I’m disturbed to realize that I’m not 100 percent sure I won’t suffer a weak, self-involved moment and do it again.

Because I’m little, and nerdy, I have suffered plenty of slings and arrows. Because I’m bright, and wordy, I’m very, very good at slinging back. And damn is it ever tempting to thump some of the assholes online. Plus, the Beast says in its defense: You’re not actually hurting them. It’s just words.

But when the Black Beast gets in the driver’s seat … you come out of it feeling dirty. Feeling less human than when you started. In fact, so it seems to me, both sides come out worse.

So I’m afraid of screwing up both ways: I’m afraid of screwing up and offending people. But I’m also afraid of screwing up and mercilessly flaming those people who offend me.

I’m afraid of seeing the Beast. I’m afraid of being the Beast.

Don’t think anything I’m saying here excuses those dimwitted vicious asses who so richly deserve public lambasting for the things they do. There really are some evil people among us, and some of them, well … their willingness to harm others knows no bounds, and suffers no pang of conscience. (I’m thinking of you, Dick Cheney, you creepy, lousy, genocidal, war-profiteering, face-shooting, gutless little draft-dodging cock-su … Oops.)

But not everyone is one of those people. Not every mistake – not even the ones that are sort of deliberate – merits a flame attack. And besides, some of the people making the mistakes are OUR people. People on our side.

But sadly, the Beast is always in here with us, waiting to pounce.

So yes, I am very afraid of screwing up.

But I still do it.

Hey, sometimes I even do it as a reaction to the fear of doing it.

Because I know something about fear, and what it does to you: I was talking to a young coworker about adventures not long back, things I’d done such as parasailing, or parachuting, or riding the mule down the narrow trails into the Grand Canyon.

I can barely even describe the mule ride. Much of it, one of your legs is dangling over a drop that might be 700 feet or more – one mistake by your mule, one bee sting, and you’d be able to scream your lungs empty 2 or 3 times before you hit the rocks below. You’d be terrified and conscious the whole way.

Parasailing scared me stiff. I was petrified for the first 3 minutes or so, so scared I couldn’t even look up at my chute, which I wanted to do, to see that it was okay. At first, I couldn’t even look out at the scenery. And on that one, I was only about 200 feet high.

Parachuting: You take off in this plane that has this huge HOLE in it, and when your jumpmaster give you the signal, you have to climb out that hole onto a tiny little step. Thousands of feet high. And then he slaps you on the shoulder and shouts “Go!” and you let go. The plane soars away from you, and you’re confused and disoriented and FALLING, there are random jerks and shudders and squeezes, and suddenly you’re hanging in the sky with nothing under you, alive only because of this contraption overhead, skinny nylon strings and fucking CLOTH.

I try to be as honest as possible, even about how much things scare me, and as I was relating this, this macho young man challenged me with “If all this stuff scares you so much, why do you do it?”

I fumbled with the answer, but it was the right one. “You can’t just … not do stuff.”

You can’t live totally inside the bounds of fear. You have to go out on the edge. Have to. You have to dare the edge, even if only a little bit.

This is especially important in your larger social matrix. I’ll tell you why:

You’re this individual. But you live in a herd. The herd has its rules, millions of them. And all of those rules are continuously imposed on you, gently or firmly, by the people around you.

The thing is, if you listen to everybody, and do what THEY think is the right thing to do, you cease to exist as an individual. Mercilessly molded by the opinions and demands of all those others, you turn into this squeezed-in little … object.

You cannot be an individual and be quiet and good and “polite” all the time. Because the rules are not made with your individual self in mind, you MUST ruffle feathers, commit faux pas, insult people, make mistakes. Sometimes.

If the people around you find nothing wrong with you, THAT is what is wrong with you. You’re not taking enough chances. Not growing or existing as your own self. (Also, if you really think about it, the most successful people around you regularly piss people off. They don’t work at it, but they also don’t fear it. Not like you and I do, anyway.)

So, yes, I’m going to screw up. I’m going to do some things you don’t like. Sometimes it’s even going to be deliberate.

But I’ll make a deal with you. With all of you, with the entire Internet.

The deal is: I’ll give you my promise to do the best I can. But in return I’ll expect something from YOU.

So here’s what I promise:

1) I promise to screw up.

Oh yeah, I’m going to do it, and we both know it. I’m going to do it often. Sometimes it’s even going to be the result of deliberation.

But when I DO screw up, and someone points it out to me, and explains why or how I’m screwing up (I can’t read your mind, but also, it has to be a legitimate collar) …

2) I promise to listen, and even to accept that you might be right.

3) I promise to think, really THINK about it. I promise to try to understand your point.

4) If it turns out that I’m wrong – and my experience of me is that I really am willing to admit that (oh, man, there’s shit I look back on and cringe … and I’m not talking about stuff I did when I was 15; I’m talking about last week) – I promise to try to change, to learn better.


5) I promise to try not to do it again. (Operative word: “try.”)

I’m not going to agree with everything everybody says about what I’m doing wrong. Partly because I’m me, this individual, and I won’t agree with others on some things. Maybe not ever. But partly because, as my experience as an atheist teaches, one man really can be right and the whole world wrong. And I have been right a few times.

But I’ll listen, and think, and even, if necessary, change.

In return, here’s what I expect from YOU.

1) Don’t expect impossible perfection from me.

Half the time when I was younger, I felt like I was dropped here among you Earth aliens by my real people, as an experiment to see how well one of us could get along with you. (The result: We can blend in as long as we control our tendency to react to your jaw-dropping freakiness.) I still feel like the odd man out fairly often.

2) Be gentle with me.

I’m not a mule you can beat, or a barn you can throw rocks at. My skin is as tender as yours. Even in my mistakes, I deserve respect and fair treatment.

Be assured that if you whack at me, call me names, and if I respect you enough to care about what you’re saying, it will hurt my feelings. The result of which, inevitably, is that I will tend to shut you out. At which time the conversation, if that’s what you were expecting, is over.

I will also think less of you. Not because you’re right and I’m wrong and that leaves me feeling uncomfortable. But because the deep me, who knows he can be wrong but also knows he has the right to be given some leeway to change course and be right again, knows you have over-reacted.

3) If I make ONE mistake, don’t treat me as a TOTAL enemy.

If you and I agree on 99 out of a hundred things, and one day I either screw up or simply come to a different conclusion than you, and we suddenly disagree on something, don’t treat me as if I’m a consciously malignant hater of all things good. I come to conclusions about things because I think about them, not because I swallow the ready-made conclusions of others.

It may be that I’ve expressed myself poorly. It may be that you’re misunderstanding me, or we’re misunderstanding each other. And it may be that YOU are the one who’s wrong. Don’t automatically draw a line and put me on the other side of it with people we both hate (you know — racists … sexists … Nazis … Republicans).

4) Give me time.

It may just be that it’s just taking me a bit to come around to your right way of thinking. Sometimes changing course takes time.

Let me repeat that: Sometimes changing course takes time.

I talked a non-committal sort-of-agnostic friend around to full atheism a few years back. This was a guy who had been hovering around the fringes of it, meanwhile sending his son to a Christian Sunday school to “learn about morality.” It took a while — something like a year of friendly bull sessions. He was there with me in spirit, but it took a bit of discussion and time for him to rearrange the things in his head.

As for me, I’ve changed my opinions on a number of things. I’m even capable (on admittedly rare occasions) of changing my opinion instantaneously, if I’m shown to be wrong – sometimes even by someone I don’t like. I truly believe it doesn’t matter who says a thing as to whether it’s correct or true or not. It’s not who’s right, but what’s right.

But most of the time, for most of us, it takes a while. You can’t just tear out the roots and foundations of the beliefs and conclusions already in your head and reshape or replace them overnight. Even I often have to work at it for a while before I get there.

Besides which, a certain amount of the stuff was installed in my head by others, way before I was a self-responsible conscious entity. Not everything inside me is ME. And who the hell gets the time to examine all that stuff, and replace it?

5) If I’m wrong and I fix it, you have to forgive me. Completely.

It’s not unknown for the families of murder victims to forgive the killer. I can’t see it myself, but if they say they do, I can only take it as stated. But if the families of murder victims can forgive, I’d say there is very little that is unforgivable.

Genocide is unforgivable. Starting the Iraq War is, to me, unforgivable. Killing things or causing agony because you don’t care enough – say using Navy sonar that we KNOW destroys the hearing of whales and dolphins – is unforgivable. Forcing me to listen to hip-hop music — unforgiveable.

Other than that, most things are forgivable. To me, when you make a mistake and then you fix it, you don’t come out of it forever after as the still-suspect “guy who made the mistake.” You come out of it as “that guy who improved himself.” The guy who is better today than he was yesterday. The guy who is still One of Us.


6) Keep the goal in mind. If the whole game is about YOU hitting homeruns, with me standing in for the ball, say goodbye to teamwork.

All of this – atheism, the larger social goals associated with it – is not about me winning, or you winning. It’s about this destination. You know, the better world we all say we want?

You can leap on me and triumphantly smash me into the dirt, and I can know I’ve been soundly beaten. After which, fuck that team spirit stuff, because neither of us is going to be fit to be part of any team. You’re going to be distracted by the cheering spectacle of you in all your glory, I’m going to be distracted by the anger of humiliation.

So …

That’s it. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it, because it’s the best I can do.

Oh, one last thing:

I’ve phrased all this as if I’m speaking solely about me. But I’m not. I’m talking about everybody. All of you, maybe even all of THEM — you know, our fellow humans down in this pit together, trying to figure things out?

Yeah, US.

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