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We are coded for error

I've started a series of posts around quotes that I find personally and psychologically relevant to me. This is the first, and while the tone is sounding more philosophical and existential compared to other posts I've written, it will still fall back to what I know best, so if you're interested, please read on.

I was recently thumbing through Breathing on Your Own, Quotations for Independent Thinkers, complied by Richard Kehl, which is a book of quotes I've had for a very long time. While making dinner with my wife one night, I rediscovered "that" line. The actual quote reads:

"We are built to make mistakes, coded for error."

- Lewis Thomas

You can look up Lewis Thomas online. The wikipedia entry on him is thorough. He was a physician, researcher, author and educator. He wrote about human biology and was Dean of Yale's Medical College for a time. His work in the 1960's and 70's was all about the lives of cells, how some cells have flaws, and how those flaws can carry forward. Cells replicate, age, change, and they die. So, our cells, at times, are imperfect. It has to be that way, because the errors drive change, both for good and the bad. This biological fault is essential to how we evolved. Dr. Thomas' work remains essential to our understanding of how we grow and adapt, age, pass on our traits, and die.

After all, we're all just big biological systems built out of smaller and smaller systems made up of cells. So the notion that if at a biological level we are coded for error, and our brains and nervous systems are biological, which is responsible for making sense of and responding to the world around us, then we are going to get some things wrong as we interact with people and our environment. This is an inevitable truth. We are going to screw up, and keep screwing up until we die. It's one way we learn.

So, when considering how we live and grow as individuals, I immediately see the human condition unfold in Dr. Thomas' statement. One aspect of growth is all about what we do with our mistakes. Whether all alone or in public, in our relationships, while parenting, at work, on social media, at the party in front of everybody; we don't and won't do everything mistake free. Sometimes we're just off, while at other times circumstances simply don't work out as we intended. Then there are times we bring the mistakes down upon ourselves for any number of reasons.

Regardless for how it happens, the point is that at various times in our lives, we are going to make mistakes. It's just part of being human. That's important to remember, because it can help take some pressure off. We live in era where there is a lot of expectation and demand of our time, energy and attention. The more that is asked of us, the greater the potential for errors and mistakes. It doesn't mean that they will, only that they could.

So when we make them, what next?

Generally, because most mistakes are minor, we will naturally self-correct, respond to the mistake in order to improve our outcomes later on (notice I didn't say "reduce failures"). That implies making some kind of change or changes, and then moving on. For some of us, change can require making similar mistakes a few more times in order to really learn the lesson. History may need to repeat itself, in order to force a change.

Another fact about the human condition:

We will play with fire.

We will take stupid chances, we will risk big, and gamble it all. From hair-brained schemes to ham-fisted ideas, crazy notions to well-thought-out plans, we will test the boundaries and limits...and earn every bruise, scrape, stitch, and scar we deserve in the process.

Even despite those painful experiences, lasting change can be hard won. Some of us will simply learn a much harder way. Namely because change is frequently driven by the size of the consequence. I'm implying negative consequences here. The word consequence is derived from old latin meaning "closely follows". So, it simply means "something that comes after", be it good, or bad, or both, or neither. Whether driven from positive results or from discovering something painful, change ultimately requires a motivation. Motivation is generally influenced by (you guessed it), consequences. They feed back on one another.

Beyond ourselves, we need to remember the people around us are also coded for the same errors. Your partner, your family, parents and siblings, children, friends and co-workers, bosses, the person driving in the other lane, the slow cashier, and late technician; everybody is going to screw up sometimes.

And sometimes those mistakes are really, really big; and the consequences can be very scary and painful. Sometimes those mistakes begin to mount up, creating a catastrophe. "Tohubohu" is an old Hebrew word meaning utter chaos, disorder, and confusion. That's the state when a lot people decide that they need help and decide to ask for it; when they feel like they are drowning in emotion.

Change requires a level of self awareness and acceptance, the realization that "I screwed up". One of those things that I've learned about people, working with them as long as I have is this:

As much as we can self-correct, we also do a good job of not "owning our own s**t.

That is one service that counseling can provide, figuring out what really belongs to you. That means taking responsibility for what is yours (and only yours).

Counseling now becomes exploring the how, the what, and why to learn from the mistakes. Pain and fear can make interesting motivators for change. Yet, they aren't always the best means to an end for growth. As those wiser than me have said, "pain is the price of admission, suffering is optional". I've come to better understand that statement; the challenge is expressing it to others. Suffering can be self-inflicted, the rub is understanding when pain is self-imposed.

Errors are a currency of humanity; we can learn from them, or, use them against others, have them used against us, or use them against ourselves. Regardless, we all make them, frequently, big and small. Oddly enough, it's a way we connect to each other, a shared experience of embarrassment, humor, and reflection. Some of us will repeat mistakes far more frequently than need be. Others of us will understand a need to adjust and behave accordingly. Others will get stuck and require someone from outside to assist in making a change.

So, if you're stuck and aware that something needs to change, yet can't seem to figure out how, consider asking for help, if even for just a short time. The benefit of getting another perspective could make all the difference in your world.

Just remember, mental health matters.