What If I Screw Up?

My reply to a young man who has a serious question …

You aren’t alone in asking this question. If we are honest with ourselves, we all ask this question. And, the corollary, “what can I do to not screw up?”.

Life is a journey, not a destination, so there is always the process of making choices, choosing the right path, reassessing, regrouping. There is always the thinking about one’s goals, what is the purpose of one’s life, and where am I going.

Aristotle counseled, “know thyself”. Philosophers and theologians and everyone else has been doing this work for millennia.

When we are born, we are not given an owner’s manual. The “directions” for a good and fruitful life aren’t really laid out for us, and aren’t explained to any of us very well. Oh, we are good observers and imitators, and sometimes, we even listen to good advice. We might be lucky and have good teachers of morals, values, and practices on how to be productive and peaceful.

Yet, biologically, we are warriors, and we are animals. We are still the cave bear hunters and the guys who sharpen our spears, and worry about the tribe down the river who will attack us for food or to steal our horses.

The primitive “hunter brain” in us develops first. The thoughtful, analytical, rational thinking brain develops much later. And the part of the brain that is good at dealing with emotions and feelings, well it really only gets on board when we are in our mid 20s.

When we are cornered and scared, we go back to using our primitive, hunter, animal brain, the “reptile” brain above the base of our skull. The use of fear and instant reflexes kept us alive in the jungle, and we fall back on that when we are in the jungle of society.

In my life, I’ve wanted to deal with injustice, bigotry, poverty, and ignorance. I’ve worked outside of society and inside of society. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into educating myself, and gaining more tools to do this work, and live a productive, and effective life.

Such work is hard and exhausting. I’ve learned that in order to live in society, and to be a worker for justice and knowledge and compassion, I’ve also needed to really be productive in taking care of myself.

I need sanctuary and peace from the craziness of society. I find peace in nature. I’ve become a photographer, a hiker, a poet, a gardener, a bird watcher, a painter, a guitar player, the owner and caretaker of pets, so I can nurture that peace and connect myself with nature.

I’ve become a lifelong learner, a reader of books, a researcher, a perpetual student. I’ve nourished my curiosity, and kept my mind growing. I’ve become a writer, using that daily practice to lead me deeper into my thoughts, and into new ideas. Writing expands my mind and makes me really think, and to really question.

I choose my family and my friends carefully. People who are toxic to me are people for me to avoid. They suck my life force energy from me. I find love in a few people, and I nourish that and respect that.

I try to surround myself with smart, thoughtful, compassionate people, people who challenge me to grow and learn, and to love better.

I try to surround myself with beauty: art, music, landscape, poetry, and experiences that nourish my soul.

I look for challenging situations, and to be a voice for decency, love, respect, compassion, and justice. But, I choose my battles carefully. I strategize. I go at the problems and the issues at a new angle, and I plant my seeds in other people’s minds.

Full out war with other people usually isn’t very productive for me. So, I will go a different route. Patience is a very useful tool in my tool box.

Society offers a great number of distractions. We are a consumer society, and people will always be after you (and especially your money) for trash. It is a daily challenge to step around that and stay focused on what you really want out of the day.

And, what I want each day is to be loved, to love, to learn, to laugh, and to be congruent and honest with my core values, and with the real world. I want to grow, and be productive, and live a meaningful life. And, it is a great day when I can be kind to another person, to love them, and to grow a bit of compassion and peacefulness in a relationship.

So, I avoid the “altered state” world of drunkenness, drug abuse, sexual exploitation, and mindless “diversions” that the consumer world keeps yapping at me about.

I find myself drawn to the peace that nature offers. I have an early morning ritual of a quiet walk down my road to get the newspaper. I notice my neighbors’ horses and goats, and the birds in the trees, the sky overhead, the trees, the quiet morning air, maybe the sound of the rain on my hat and the feel of the rain on my skin.

I know that the coffee is brewing and my wife is waiting for me and the paper, so we can sip coffee together, read and talk about the day’s news and, especially, the ideas in the newspaper, and enjoy each other’s brains and love.

It is a time for me to get my act together, to plan what I what to do and what I want to accomplish today.

I get things in order, and change my focus on to what I want to have happen in my life that day, to put my energies to work on building my life, and living my morals, and be true in my direction in life.

Life has problems. Part of my task is to understand and to solve those problems, to be a good manager. Some problems need to be given over to Spirit, and to others to worry about. If I do my best, and if I am really honest with myself, then I am a good manager of problems.

Some problems I can’t solve. And, there are some problems I can’t manage very well. I try to figure all that out and to put my energies and my analytical mind to good use, managing and working on stuff I CAN do, stuff I do well. The other stuff, well, I talk with my team and put them to work on dealing with the problem.

I have a team. My friends, my wife, my family, and time. I have me on my team, too. So, I make sure “me” is well taken care of and ready for the day. I try to be exercised, fed, washed, clothed, and make sure I have met my need for being in nature and being in quiet contemplation. Do I have my thinking in order? Do I have my brain focused on the task at hand?

Am I being realistic? Are my goals for the day sensible, or have I been sucked into fantasy? Am I catastrophizing, imagining that the worst will happen today? Am I depressed and sad, lonely? (And, if so, I need to work on that, and practice self care, and be healthy.)

I plan my vacations, my time away. And, sometimes, that is a ten minute break, just staring at the sky, or playing my guitar, or petting my cat. Sometimes, I have lunch with myself, having a good visit with myself, and taking some “me” time. I remind myself that I love myself, that I am worthy of love, and that I am a decent human being.

Yeah, the world batters me around. I have wounds and I get angry and frustrated. Life teaches me lessons, and I keep having those experiences, until I learn the lesson that is there for me to learn.

Life is like that; it wants you to learn something and it doesn’t give up on dumping crap on you until you finally learn the lesson you need to learn.

We are spiritual beings, and so I make sure I nourish my spiritual life, and do good spiritual practices. Feeding my soul is an essential part of my life. I wander off the path if I don’t do this. It is part of self care and self love.

No one will come along with a magic wand someday and pronounce you fully enlightened and all wise about life. No one has the answers. Reaching some chronological age doesn’t suddenly enlighten you and solve all your problems.

You, my brother, get to be the captain of your own ship here. You get to define your problems and you get to decide what sort of attention you pay to your problems. And, maybe some things that people want you to think is a problem, isn’t your problem. Other people’s drama may not be the play you want to act in, or even be in the audience.

You have two decades of rich and fertile experience and wisdom. You have some solid goals and dreams in your life. You have a lot of tools and knowledge. You also know that if you don’t have the answers, you know how to learn the answers. You have a team, and you have yourself.

I think you are a well armed, well equipped warrior for this journey we call life. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, is a metaphysical way of looking at all this. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig is also a good resource and a great read (he wanders about the country on his motorcycle and muses about life).

I want you to screw up once in a while. I want you to have challenges and to have to do some hard thinking about your values and your actions, and the conflict with all of that. “The unexamined life is not worth living”, is a seminal concept in Greek philosophy. I want you to wrestle with these issues, and to be thoughtful and caring, and to love yourself in the doing of all of that. In that work, you will grow into an even more beautiful, special person.

Life makes you stronger, more fit. But, we do this thing called “Life” together. It is all a continuing discussion. You are loved and you are empowered. And, you will do this well. I believe in you.


Neal C. Lemery

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