I don’t remember where I heard the best bit of advice I’ve ever learned, but it goes something like this:
WHATEVER IS MY FAULT IS WITHIN MY POWER TO CONTROL
It’s not my own original concept. I probably heard variations of the same truth several times from several sources (over half of those sources being my mother), but it wasn’t until I’d reached the right juncture in my life that those words really made sense to me, sometime in my late 20s.
I’ve recently seen a meme on Facebook that sums up a similar idea in a slightly darker (but funnier) way:
EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. SOMETIMES THE REASON IS THAT YOU’RE STUPID AND YOU MAKE BAD CHOICES.
Harsh, I know – and not entirely accurate.
We hear the word ‘stupid’ a lot, but sometimes what we really mean is ‘poorly informed’ or ‘unaware of the consequences of this choice’ or ‘failed to do adequate research’ or ‘failed to take adequate precautions’. In other words, we don’t know and we don’t know that we don’t know.
I’ve learned the hard way that there are infinitely more things in this life that I DON’T know than there are things that I DO know. For every one item in my skill set about which I feel confident – how to keep a cupboard tidy, the recipe for divine brownies*, the difference between ‘to’, ‘too’ and ‘two’ – there are easily 10,000 things I don’t know – how to say anything other than ‘thank you’ in Chinese, exactly how an internal combustion engine works, where the Internet comes from.
(Isn’t the Internet manufactured somewhere in Norway? I have this vision of some blonde guy named Sven sitting in front of a big black console with lots of blinking lights, sort of like Homer Simpson at his desk in the power plant, but I’m not certain that’s right and I really feel like I should know.)
The good news is that almost every time I’ve done something ‘stupid’, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn from my mistake, and that opportunity comes in the form of one question:
WHAT COULD I HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?
Sometimes it’s easy to see how my choices resulted in an outcome I didn’t like. If I hadn’t bought all those clothes I didn’t need from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, I would still have money for groceries. If I’d looked at the weather forecast, I would have known that the temperature was going to drop today and I could have brought a jacket and I wouldn’t be sitting here freezing. If I’d eaten less and exercised more, my pants would still fit.
(Right now, someone is composing a comment telling me how I’m fat shaming and that there are lots of reasons for weight gain and that I shouldn’t be so mean. I’m talking about myself here. If I eat lots of crappy food and I don’t exercise, then I get fat. So cool your jets.)
If I can find a way to make that unpleasant outcome my own fault, then I can find the way to create a different, better outcome next time. If I’m successful, then I’ve gained some experience and I’m less likely to make the same mistake in the future. If I can’t learn from my poor choices, then I’m kind of, well, stupid and destined to continue making the same bad decisions over and over.
‘But, but, but!’ you might be thinking. ‘It’s NOT always my fault! Sometimes things happen that I can’t control!’
Yes. And sometimes it’s hard to see the difference.
Here’s an example. In a recent post to The Players Tribune, American hockey player Patrick O’Sullivan wrote about how his dad used to beat the holy hell out of him every time he didn’t play well enough on the ice. For a long time, O’Sullivan believed that the beatings were his fault and that if he just practiced harder and played better, his dad wouldn’t beat him. He was ten.
It took O’Sullivan a long time to realise that his dad was really just a monster and that it wouldn’t have mattered what he’d done during the game. His dad was looking for a reason to beat him – and the asshole always found one. Eventually O’Sullivan realised that the beatings weren’t his fault and placed the blame where it belonged.
Here’s another example. We’ve all heard stories of healthy people who exercise every day and avoid fatty foods and alcohol and eat kale and quinoa and meditate and go to bed early – and drop dead of an inexplicable heart attack at the age of 46 for no reason that makes sense.
Good choices in both of these examples didn’t equal a good outcome and it was no one’s fault.
On the flip side are all the many times that I’ve made bad choices and something or someone has saved my ass – like the time I was a waitress and I’d managed my finances badly and I was short on my rent and one of my customers chose that day to leave me a $50 tip on a $20 check or the time I was speeding and the state trooper who should have given me a ticket happened to be peeing into a bush on the side of the road when I went flying passed him. That was luck, not good choices.
But if I’m honest with myself, most of the time what happens to me is a result of my own choices. When bad things happen, if I can find the way it was my fault, then I can figure out what to do differently next time.
It’s easy to find excuses. For many years, I was in the habit of making myself temporarily comfortable by convincing myself that someone or something else was to blame. It’s not my fault I’m broke – my shitty boyfriend didn’t pay me back the money I loaned him. It’s not my fault I was late – there was traffic. It’s not my fault I don’t have my work uniform – my mom didn’t do my laundry.
It took me a long time to realise that I could have taken charge of every single one of these circumstances. Mom didn’t do laundry? I’m old enough to have a job, I can learn how to run that machine myself. There was traffic? Yep, but there’s traffic every day – I need to leave earlier. Boyfriend didn’t pay me back? Well, I only gave him the money because I was insecure and I wanted him to like me – don’t do that! (I made THAT unsavoury choice THREE TIMES before I finally learned.)
We don’t like to use the word ‘fault’. It has a negative connotation, one that denotes criticism and blame. We can all think of a time when someone pointed a finger at us with the accusation, ‘It’s all your fault!’
The truth is that every time I make poor choices (for whatever reason) and I insist, ‘It’s not my fault’, I’m choosing to remain a victim. I’m choosing to NOT learn from my mistakes and gain valuable experience. I’m choosing to allow life to pimp slap me – or, more accurately, I’m making the choices that result in my pimp slapping myself – over and over again.
It can be tough to be honest with yourself and look for your own faults. Experience is the most comprehensive of teachers (if you let it be), but it rarely gives you the chance to go back and correct bad choices once they’ve been made.
You can’t get unpregnant, not in any easy way that doesn’t stay with you for the rest of your life. You can’t go back and unbetray the trust of someone who once loved you. You can only treat herpes for the REST OF YOUR LIFE – you can never get rid of it.
(Before I get hate mail, yes I know there are horrible circumstances under which a woman can get pregnant and it’s not her fault. That’s not what I’m talking about – I’m talking about the women and men who fully understand where babies come from and who choose to have sex without taking contraceptive measures.)
The good news is that, even when my choices have been irreparable, if I can pin point the moment when I made the wrong choice, I’ve taken back control. I’m now equipped with the information to avoid making the same mistake again in the future. I can note the lesson learned, forgive myself and move on.
And sometimes, that’s enough.
(*No seriously, my brownies are divine – 27 people have traded me their souls for my brownies. I keep those souls in a jar on my kitchen bench.
I’m going to go find out where the Internet comes from now … )