The first time I remember ever letting someone down remains clear in my memory. I was eight years old in the third grade at Montrose Elementary. It was party day at my school, and everyone had signed up to bring something. I had promised to bring cups, but on the morning of the party, I left my house without them.
When I arrived at school and saw everyone turning in their goodies, I realized my mistake. Now, I don’t know what you were like at eight years old, but I was way too serious. When I realized I’d forgotten the cups, I was devastated. I started crying almost uncontrollably.
The teacher sent me to the office to call home to see if someone could bring the cups. I called and called, no answer. My sobbing continued. The secretary took me into the cafeteria to see if the cooks had cups the class could use. They gave me a giant stack of them, enough for everyone to have two or three, maybe more. The crying went on.
“It’s OK, honey,” the cooks reassured, “You have all the cups you need.” Instead of feeling comforted, I thought, “Why are they being so nice to me? I forgot the cups!” The sobbing persisted.
I don’t remember the party itself, but I’m sure there was no pleasure in it for me. I could not think of anything except how I had let my teacher and classmates down, and now they were stuck with these stupid plain Styrofoam cups, all because of me.
I guess the secretary must have reached my dad by phone before the school day was over, because by the time I arrived at home, he knew all about my crying fit. “So you forgot the cups?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied tears forming in my eyes again, “Am I in trouble?” My dad looked at me, probably trying to cover up his amusement at my despair and said, “Honey, I think you’ve punished yourself enough.”
Now, I wish I could tell you that something in my dad’s words changed my eight year old life that day, that I never again allowed myself to be impacted so profoundly by a mistake I made or by letting people down in some way, that I learned how to be easy on myself, to be more forgiving of myself. But that would be a lie. The truth is I continued to feel disheartened every time I let someone down, even though my outward response became much less dramatic.
Since then, I have made mountains of mistakes in my life. Some of them were much bigger than forgotten cups, so big in fact that I assumed even God would be let down by me.
But every time I have looked up, heart broken at my own mistakes, waiting to feel anger and disappointment from the Divine, I have always been met with the same loving response I received from my dad that day at the door. “Honey, I think you’ve punished yourself enough,” God says.
Over time I realized that instead of punishing me, God helps me use my mistakes for growth, for improvements, for lessons, for good. Instead of being met with anger, I am met with mercy. Instead of disappointment, I am met with compassion. And I am learning slowly to offer myself that same compassion.
Now, I want to be clear. I am not advocating carelessness. I don’t think we should throw pop cans out the window of moving cars, cuss out the neighbors for no reason, and park in other people’s driveways. Our actions matter. I do believe it’s important to be thoughtful of others and how our actions impact them.
But I also believe that we need to allow ourselves space for big mistakes in our lives. We need to allow ourselves to be human. We need to remember that we were not created to be perfect, that striving to be perfect may just be the biggest mistake we make in this life.
And when we do make honest-to-goodness big mistakes, we need to believe that we are worthy of forgiveness. We can choose to extend the same mercy to ourselves as we offer to others. As Buddha states, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
Can we make some sort of agreement about this? Can we all just do our best to remember the cups without all the stress attached? If we forget them, can we just agree to say we are sorry and do the best we can next time? Then can we just go and enjoy the party? I mean, really, haven’t we punished ourselves enough?