I’ll begin by admitting that I stole the title of this post. Last week, I was reading a Dorianne Laux poem by the same name and was struck by this line: “You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake.” This can be read in one of two ways. The first, that all the bad decisions you’ve made have led you to the terrible circumstances you’re now in. The second, that every misstep and wrong turn weren’t “mistakes” at all, but crucial stepping stones that have miraculously guided you to the place you are now supposed to be. The perspective all depends on your current condition. At present, I’m somewhere in between.
I try to maintain the outlook that everything happens for a reason. In my heart of hearts, I believe this. I do. I also believe we may not know all of these reasons—and sometimes, we may never know—and that the reasons are not necessarily leading us to starshine, bunnies, and glitter. Meaning, not every terrible thing ultimately results in euphoric glee. I know what you’re thinking, “Gee, you don’t say?” Well, I do say, and I say it because, typically, there’s something more important we need to find on our winding paths than a destination of perpetual bliss.
So I believe that everything happens for a reason. That being said, I don’t take kindly to getting pelted with this adage, and I try not to do the same to others. I also don’t enjoy people suggesting possible reasons for my misfortune, especially when I’m living in the middle of misfortune’s hot, fat belly. You wouldn’t believe how many people have looked at the difficulties that have befallen me over the past few years and said, “This’ll work its way into one of your stories someday.” As though that’s any consolation. I often want to tell them, “I write fiction. I have an imagination, and therefore, enough material to last for centuries. I don’t need any real-life help.” Sometimes, I do say this, at which point, people laugh uncomfortably and change the subject.
Now, I know when people say things like that, they’re trying to be consoling, to give me a reason why the bad things are happening, and to also give me the hope that my suffering hasn’t been for nothing. But the problem with that is the “reason” they offer isn’t about me, but my work. I love my work very much, but it isn’t my sole purpose for existing. And I am long over the notion that one has to be miserable in order to be effective as an artist (which is another topic for another post). So to suggest that the only reason my own life has been so crappy is so that I can write stories about characters whose lives are also crappy seems a little unfair. I’d also refer that person, once again, to the aforementioned “imagination,” which is quite capable of imagining crappy things all on its own without having to go through them, thank you very much.
The other day, I was talking to my pastor about my crazy life, and he shared a quote with me by Viktor E. Frankl: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.'” I said, “Yes, and for the past few years, I’ve been missing the ‘why.'” He said, “I know. You’ve been having a really hard time for quite a while, with no sign of relief.” I nodded, and for a moment, we just sat there, looking at one another. He didn’t tell me, “Chin up.” He didn’t tell me, “God has a plan.” He didn’t even quote scripture at me. He listened and offered his empathy, and I thank him for that.
In Romans 8:28 (now I’m quoting scripture at you), we are told, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” On a first read, I think, How can that be possible? All things? ALL things? And “for the good,” no less? And yet, I know it’s true. The key to this verse is, I believe, the last phrase: “who have been called according to his purpose.” Notice, that’s not my purpose, but God’s. Looking at it in this light, it might make sense that not everything (or in my case lately, nothing) goes my way. It might also make sense that I don’t experience these “bad” things as “good.” God is God, and I am human, and so it stands to reason that He does things differently than I do. It also stands to reason that the ultimate good He’s leading me toward might, for the time being, look far from it.
The other part of this verse is the idea of purpose. While I was talking to my pastor, he did, at one point, turn to scripture (he is a pastor, after all). We looked at several verses in Proverbs, which bounce back and forth between telling you to commit your plans to God and you’ll be successful, to then reminding you that God’s plans are not your own and every step you take is directed by Him. That’s confusing. I don’t claim to understand that. The only thing I can attempt to grasp from the back-and-forth is that I should have a plan, commit it to God, try hard to achieve it, but at the same time, not fall into a pit of despair if things don’t go the way I’d hoped. I am not so good at any of that.
And so, as I often do when I’m confused or distressed, I turn once more to poetry: “You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake.” Could it be that what I’ve viewed as mistakes are actually part of a divine plan to lead me, not only where I am today, but where I might be going in the future? Could it be that every move, every terrible job, every heartbreak, every question, and every second-guess was actually designed to shape me into the person I’m becoming, a person who will need to be very different from the person I once was, to do what I may need to do now and in the future? I’m beginning to believe so, even if it means letting go of some of my long-held-onto plans.
I’m not entirely sure what that looks like, reshaping plans. Even though it’s not crystal clear where I’m going, I’ve been getting the sense lately that what has put me on this road was not one thing or a few things, but everything–everything I’ve done, and everything that’s been done to me, good or bad, right or wrong. The origin of the word “mistake” is from the Old Norse mistaka, which means “take in error.” So perhaps our choices are not our errors. Perhaps the error is in how we view them.