On Fallibility

As a child, I succumbed to the notion that the world around me was infallible. Everything was as it should be, and everyone knew what they were doing. Those who delivered the news, those who manufactured my home, those who ran my government were making products and ideas that need not be questioned. In seventh grade, that changed.

I was sitting in Mr. Miller’s algebra class. We began the day’s lesson with the proper placement of a decimal point. Standing in front of the blackboard, yet another pillar of exactitude, Mr. Miller told us that, at a convenience store just up the road, a sign in the window advertised coffee for .99 cents, and that every time he saw that sign, he wanted to walk into the store, pour himself a coffee, and hand the cashier a penny, telling him to “keep the change.”

The rest of the class chuckled. I did not. I wondered. The fallibility of the world had just been exposed to me, and I would never see it in the same light. If these people at the gas station didn’t understand a concept as simple as the placement of a decimal point- basic math to even the most average of seventh graders- what other mistakes were present in my world?

As it turns out, no greater gift could have been bestowed upon me than the knowledge that even adults made mistakes, that the world was not a perfect, utopian place. If the world was indeed flawed, then it cried out for corrections, for new ideas, for new mistakes. The world is an unfinished product, and it desperately needed new workers to improve upon it. I was handed the proverbial blank slate, equipped with a single piece of chalk, and I needed to get to work. All these years later, the exhilaration of that epiphany has not yet left me.

Fast forward to 2011. After a seven (eight?) year stage hiatus, I auditioned for a part in a local theater’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  Much to my surprise, the part was given to me. Not only had I been absent from the stage for so long, I also had no technical training, no real skill to speak of. So, during the first rehearsal, I pulled the director aside, asking him to be generous with his criticism, as I was eager to learn, to improve, to grow. After all, my stage background was less than impressive, to say the least, and his was to be envied. He was a professional actor, and one who ran his own theater, no less. His reaction to my request was surprising- in that he was surprised. Most people don’t ask for more criticism, he said. Few are thankful of the little that’s given to them.

I pondered this for awhile afterwards. How could it be that amateur actors were so hesitant to receive instruction from someone so obviously their theater superior? How can anyone grow, how can anyone improve, if they’re completely closed to those from whom they can learn? The more I thought about this phenomenon, the more I started to recognize it in my life outside of the theater. Friends who were involved in bad relationships refused to take advice from those in a happy marriage. Freshman colleagues refused to accept the help of senior staff members. I even witnessed a first-time guitar pupil getting annoyed at the suggestions of his tutor. It was as if everyone assumed that they knew best, in every possible field, even if that clearly wasn’t the case. 

He who moves not forward, goes backward
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The problem, it seems to me, lies in the tendency of individuals to wrap their thoughts and their actions up into their identity, twisting and mashing them together until one is indistinguishable from the other. If we are the result of the things we, think, say, and do, then it’s difficult not to take offense when we are told that we could be doing something better, we could be approaching something in a more thoughtful way, or we could be dealing with circumstances more advantageously. After all, when you attack my actions, you are consequently attacking me.

In order to grow, one must create a dichotomy of himself. One one side lies our thoughts, our actions, our words. On the other, our very selves. The Romanian philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade put it thusly:

As long as we are unconsciously and automatically identifying with the changing contents of our consciousness, we never suspect that our true nature remains hidden from us. Contemplative traditions affirm in one metaphor or another that our true identity lies not in the changing contents of consciousness but in a deeper layer of the self, mind or soul. To reach this deeper layer one must slowly disentangle oneself from automatic identification with the contents of consciousness.

In this case, of course, our consciousness is our thoughts, actions, and words. Once you’ve accomplished this disassociation, the recognition comes that you are an incomplete work of art: you yourself are a blank canvas, and you hold the paintbrush. Paint yourself as you will. There are no rules, no restrictions, and most importantly, no infallible master instructing you to paint yourself as so many have before you. Nor is your first attempt going to be your best, but that’s the beauty of the thing. You are not limited in the amount of times you choose to recreate yourself. You may choose to add a bit of color here and there, transforming yourself in minute ways until you’re satisfied with the resulting mosaic. You may choose to simply start with a blank canvas every week, every year.

To let you in on a little secret, I’m in the midst of this very process. A ten-year salesman, I now know that there is no life better-suited for me than one of writing and web design. It’s a difficult, arduous process to recreate oneself, and it need not be so drastic. But to be the master of your own Fate, to wield the brush that paints your life is an invaluable and liberating thing. To be handed the brush, though, you must open yourself to the wisdom of others. Admit to yourself that you do not always know best. Don’t just open yourself to criticism- actively seek it, because you are a work in progress, and to see yourself as infallible is to paint yourself in black and white. The brilliant colors needed to paint a masterpiece lie in the wisdom of the people you love, trust, and admire.