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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why I'll Always Talk About My Mistakes

Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar - touching them is a mistake. Their hair causes allergic reactions and their barbs can cause serious injuries to the eyes. They are pretty though. 

  I suppose its fair to say that I'm more than a tad bit cynical. This isn't so much a matter of age as personality, I think - cynical is my natural default setting and always has been. Chalk it up to some very well ingrained early life lessons that taught me not to trust things that appeared too good to be true, because not only were they never as good as they appeared they often concealed hidden dangers. In all my life I have never found this approach to be a bad one to live by - I am either already prepared when the truth comes out or pleasantly surprised when things actually are as good as they seemed.

I have noticed a trend - in culture, in paganism and polytheism, in general - for people, especially people who are in the public eye, to only ever focus on the positives. In metaphysical books and classes I often listen to teachers telling cute anecdotes about how successfully they have done things, or how well they have handled difficult situations. And make no mistake there's nothing wrong with telling stories of success; success has its place and we need to hear about the times things go right. But too often there is no balance, there is no matching story of failure, or struggle, or personal error to go with the stories of flawless success. I mistrust on a deep instinctual level people who never, ever talk about making mistakes, who present their magical and spiritual lives as smooth, error-free adventures. When I see that sort of perfection being touted I smell a trap (hey I told you at the beginning I was cynical - but that doesn't mean I'm wrong). 

I don't think anyone who actually does anything lacks stories of screwing up, and that's true of spirituality and magic as much as it is of skateboarding or painting. If experienced people aren't sharing their stories of messing up they either don't want to admit they make mistakes or they don't have any to share because they don't actually do anything. In the first case I think its both foolish and dangerous to act like an experienced person doesn't make any mistakes, because it gives less experienced people the impression that perfection is an attainable goal in magical work and spirituality. Its certainly what we want to aim for, and I make far fewer mistakes now than I did a quarter century ago, but I do still make mistakes. And in the second case, well, if you aren't actually doing anything then of course there's no chance of making a mistake. I've got nothing really to say about the people who don't actively do, except that I can't see much reason to learn from them unless what they are teaching is meant to be purely academic anyway. As to the ones who won't admit they mess up, as I said I think its a dangerous and foolish attitude. I would rather have a teacher who seems like a real person that I can relate to than one who is trying to impersonate a state of impossible perfection that I know is beyond me. I also worry that it is easy to fall into complacency, or worse arrogance, where we forget that there is an element of risk and danger to what we do, particularly with magic. When we start to assume everything we do will go exactly as we plan or every situation is in our control and something we can handle, that is when people get hurt. 

I'm not sure why this fear of acknowledging mistakes is so pervasive. To err is human as they say, and mistakes are universal. If they fear criticism, well we will all be criticized anyway and as Teddy Roosevelt said: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcomings..."

I will always talk about my mistakes, no great challenge because they have been numerous. In almost any spiritual or magical context I can think of a situation where I mishandled, misconcieved, misunderstood, or generally made the wrong choice in how to react to something in a way that had negative consequences. There was the time I accidentally got my friend possessed by an angry ghost because I thought I knew how to handle a situation that I didn't have the experience (at the time) for. Or the time in a ritual at a friend's house that we set her parent's carpet on fire because we used the wrong kind of candles and they burned too fast. There was the time I underestimated the amount of Fey energy in a place and let my guard down, and had my ankle grabbed walking across a flat lawn resulting in a painfully sprained foot (if you've never sprained the muscles in your foot, trust me its even less fun than it sounds like it would be). There was the time I decided not to banish a negative ghost in a place we were living and my husband was almost shoved off a second story deck. There was the time I did a poorly worded money spell and promptly was in a car accident, which meant receiving money in a very undesirable way. I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. I have made mistakes; I make mistakes. We all do and that's okay because making mistakes and struggling to fix them - or even having to live with the consequences of them - is how we learn. And learning is absolutely vital in magic and spirituality. This isn't a game, this is - for those of us who really believe in it anyway - a system that has actual and sometimes profound repercussions. Like life itself, magic and spirituality can be messy, can be dangerous, and can go sideways when we least expect it; and we have to know how to handle whatever gets thrown our way. Examples of perfection and stories about everything going exactly to plan have their place but they don't and can't teach us these things. Mistakes can.

We only learn from our mistakes if we acknowledge that we made them - and if we never forget the experience and what it taught us. I have erred hugely in my spiritual and magical life and have often and repeatedly paid for it, and those lessons, hard won and painful, have been invaluable. I share those stories with my students and with people who take my workshops or read my books partially so that they won't necessarily need to make the same mistakes (go forth and make your own, as it were) and partially so that they will see that we all make mistakes. I don't believe in perfection, and I think that anyone who is living is capable of error. What matters isn't that we don't make any mistakes, but that we own the mistakes we make, do what we can to fix them, and learn as much as possible from them.

Because when we don't learn from our mistakes, as the old saying goes, we are doomed to repeat them. 
Ignis aurum probat

The result of pissing of the Good People, circa 2014