From The Crown of Individuality, 1909, by William George Jordan
There are only two classes of people who never make mistakes – they are the dead and the unborn. Mistakes are the inevitable accompaniment of the greatest gift given to man – individual freedom of action. If he were only a pawn in the fingers of Omnipotence, with no self-moving power, man would never make a mistake, but his very immunity would degrade him to the ranks of the lower animals and the plants. An oyster never makes a mistake – it has not the mind that would permit it to forsake an instinct.
Let us be glad of the dignity of our privilege to make mistakes, glad of the wisdom that enables us to recognize them, glad of the power that permits us to turn their light as a glowing illumination along the pathway of our future.
Mistakes are the growing pains of wisdom, the assessments we pay on our stock of experience, the raw material of error to be transformed into higher living. Without them there would be no individual growth, no progress, no conquest. Mistakes are the knots, the tangles, the broken threads, the dropped stitches in the web of our living. They are the misdeals in judgment, our unwise investments in morals, the profit and loss account of wisdom. They are the misleading bypaths from the straight road of truth and truth in our highest living is but the accuracy of the soul.
Life is simply time given to man to learn how to live. Mistakes are always part of learning. The real dignity of life consists in cultivating a fine attitude towards our own mistakes and those of others. It is the fine tolerance of a fine soul. Man becomes great, not through never making mistakes, but by profiting by those he does make; by being satisfied with a single rendition of a mistake, not encoring it into a continuous performance; by getting from it the honey of new, regenerating inspiration with no irritating sting of morbid regret; by building better to-day because of his poor yesterday; and by rising with renewed strength, finer purpose and freshened courage every time he falls.
In great chain factories, power machines are specially built to test chains – to make them fail, to show their weakness, to reveal the mistakes of workmanship. Let us thank God when a mistake shows us the weak link in the chain of our living. It is a new revelation of how to live. It means the rich red blood of a new inspiration.
If we have made an error, done a wrong, been unjust to another or to ourselves, or, like the Pharisee, passed by some opportunity for good, we should have the courage to face our mistake squarely, to call it boldly by its right name, to acknowledge it frankly and to put in no flimsy alibis of excuse to protect an anemic self-esteem.
If we have been selfish, unselfishness should atone; if we have wronged, we should right; if we have hurt, we should heal; if we have taken unjustly, we should restore; if we have been unfair, we should become just. Every possible reparation should be made. If confession of regret for the wrong and for our inability to set it right be the maximum of our power let us at least do that. A quick atonement sometimes almost effaces the memory. If foolish pride stands in our way we are aggravating the first mistake by a new one. Some people’s mistakes are never born singly – they come in litters.