On a long car trip together, my friend Sheila confessed she was four months pregnant when she married her first husband. “You can never put that behind you,” she said. “I was chaperoning the kids in our ward on a Youth Conference when Cole sat beside me on the bus and asked when his dad and I got married. I told him and he looked and me and said, ‘You were married November 22 and I was born March 16. Were you . . . ?’ That was not the time I would have chosen to tell him. If only I hadn’t been stupid enough to have sex with that jerk I thought I was in love with.”
“But then you wouldn’t have Cole,” I reminded her. “And that would be tragic.”
Mortals make mistakes while muddling through an often confusing, indifferent world, and mistakes have consequences. But mistakes need not be tragic—and mistakes that were not deliberate attempts to harm someone else are not sins. Mistakes are effective, albeit painful, teachers. Sheila moved on, made a better second marriage, raised a good family, and became a high school teacher with wise compassion for kids struggling with peers, parents and hormones. Her youthful misstep is one ingredient in the mix that made Sheila the person she is today.
As a young sailor, George met his first wife while hanging out with lowlife buddies. That was one knot he wished he hadn’t tied while serving in the Navy. A few years ago, his stepson from that marriage contacted him. Skipper paid us a visit and re-established the bond he’d felt with the only real father-figure in his life. George no longer regrets the marriage that provided a bright spot in a boy’s sad childhood.
In Buddhism the pure and perfect lotus, growing from impure, stagnant water, is a symbol of enlightenment. Like the lotus, we can draw nutrients from the muddied water of poor choices and, with that nourishment, grow stronger and better.
Nobody would deliberately choose to mess up her life just for added strength; of course, and we don’t need to. We all make plenty of non-deliberate, poor decisions. So long as we learn from our errors and don’t keep plugging quarters into the same broken slot machine, mistakes move us along the path to spiritual and emotional maturity.