A recent episode of This American Life opened with a conversation with Ryan Knighton, a Canadian writer who is also blind. The interview focused on one of Knighton's most disorienting experiences as a blind person: while staying in a hotel, he mis-imagined the layout of his room so thoroughly that despite tracing every wall repeatedly, he couldn't find his way back to the bed. He fumbled around the room until he discovered his mistake, a wall he had missed and failed to incorporate into his mental map, and eventually made it back to the bed. He described the situation incredibly succinctly: "You get a picture in your mind, and if you get it wrong you just live inside the mistake."
The last bit of that sentence struck me: "...you just live inside the mistake." It wasn't what Knighton meant by those words that caught my interest, but what they evoked in me. I immediately imagined what it would be like to live one's life inside a mistake: an intense feeling of stuckness, unable to navigate your way out of a situation. I reflected back on my own mistakes, and my marriage in particular. It was almost claustrophobic at the end; it felt oppressive, weighing me down and sapping my spirit. The idea of living inside that mistake for the rest of my life was almost unbearable.
Like Knighton, I groped around for a while, trying to find my bearings and reorient myself. Finally, I found what I imagined to be my escape and got a divorce. I immediately felt freer and congratulated myself on my triumph, but it was only later that I realized the truth: there is no escaping the mistake. Ever. Instead, it's always there, every day, shaping my life and informing my actions and decisions. I will live inside the mistake for the rest of my life.
What the mistake doesn't do anymore is constrain me. Like every other part of my life - all the mistakes, as well as the accomplishments and other experiences - it shapes me, but I also shape it. At first its walls felt rigid and limiting, and I bumped up against them constantly. Slowly they began to give way, and as I grew and pressed against them they took my shape more and more often. It became a give and take, and my focus shifted from living inside the mistake to truly living inside the mistake. Instead of letting it limit me, I decided to live the best life I could inside it, and I discovered a funny thing: my life inside the mistake is better than it ever was before it.
Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, and if we're lucky we avoid the truly catastrophic ones. But the idea of escaping any of the mistakes we make, big or small, is illusory. The best we can do is hope to grow into them, learn from them, and eventually, define them as much as they define us. And hopefully, when we're not looking, we'll realize that while we can never truly escape our mistakes, we wouldn't want it any other way.