Sunday, February 10, 2008

Whose Mistake is it, Anyway?

I recognized myself in this story, told by Sheila Fabricant Linn in the book Belonging, and pray that I have made as much progress as she has. She commissioned a jeweler to recast her mother's ring for her own wedding. The first version was unsatisfactory, so she sent it back. The second version, which arrived two days before the wedding, was even worse -- not only did Sheila dislike it, but the stones kept digging into the side of her fingers.

"So, the day after the wedding we returned it once more. From then on, I noticed that every time the phone rang, I was afraid the jeweler was calling to yell at me for bothering her again. I was acting as if it were my fault that she had not made the ring correctly.

"Finally she did call to tell me they were ready to mail the ring. She spoke to me in a very loving way, and apologized for not having made the ring as I wanted it the first or second time. I realized what I had been doing. We had hired her, we were paying for her work, she had made a mistake . . . and I was acting as if I needed to make amends to her.

"Years ago, I would not even have sent that ring back. I would have taken the consequences of another's mistake and worn something for the rest of my life that I did not like. So, even asking the jeweler to redo the ring was a step toward making aments to myself for all the times in the past when I took the consequences of other people's mistakes. Realizing how I had been blaming myself for the jeweler's mistake, I tried to make further amends to myself by appreciating the way I had held out for what I really wanted. I do that again each time I look at my ring and let myself enjoy how it feels exactly right for me."

While I was typing this, I remembered an incident from early motherhood. Andy -- still a pre-schooler -- bought a box of plastic pre-historic figurines. They weren't expensive from an adult point of view, but they represented a substantial investment for him. As soon as he got into the car, he tore open his purchase and discovered that one package of figurines was missing.

As he grieved over the loss, I sat in the car with the engine running, clutching the steering wheel. All I wanted to do was put my vehicle in gear and get the hell out of there. Then I said to myself,


I shut off the engine and explained to my son that when we buy something in a store and there is something wrong with it, we can take it back and ask the people who sold it to us to fix the mistake. He was surprised and happy to hear that. We marched back into the store together. I let him handle the transaction himself because I was sure he could do it better than I could. He trusted that justice would be done, and I didn't. His explanation was so charming that he got not only what he asked for, but an additional package of figurines.

It would have been so easy for me to tell my son to stop whining and appreciate what he got. But that was a message I had heard too often as a child. I was still, at age thirty-something, absorbing the consequences of other people's mistakes instead of holding them accountable.

The good people of the Christian church tend to support unassertive behaviour, labelling it "forgiveness". But it is not loving to support other people's mistakes, unintentional or otherwise. We each need to own our deficiencies before we can experience grace and grow through it. Forgiveness is a divine act of grace, but we can't honestly offer it to others unless we first admit that we were wronged.

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