The only real error in life is the attempt to avoid error.
The only correction of this error is to accept making all other errors and then work to correct them.
The word mistake means an attempt that does not go as intended, a mis-take. Think of takes as in filming a movie. Take 1, Take 2, and so forth. Our lives are sort of like an unedited film with the camera always rolling. We do not get the chance to go back and edit out our mistakes. There is no blooper reel separate from the film itself. The bloopers are permanently embedded, and the desire for the error-free following of our own badly-written script is a straightforward path to paralysis or psychiatric institutionalization.
Four years ago today, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life: after 11 years living in Latin America, I moved to Europe, thinking I was seeking a better, easier go of life here, a more hospitable environment for my work and mission with fewer hurdles and more assistance. I thought I was going to get a new lease and fresh start, but what I got instead was an ice cold bath followed by an acid shower.
From a shallow, outside, objective perspective, the whole endeavor has been a farcical repitition of the tragic history of my initial history in Latin America: repeating mis-takes, and the reliving of their narratives and consequences. But even the slightest permeability to nuance refutes this perspective. I know that as long as I live and breath, every tragic error is but a prologue, the setup to a valiant ending that has not yet been written.
Inded, only a truly impish and impoverished mind can believe that a mistake can be repeated — the sort of mind that prefers to try nothing because it is so arrogantly committed to the idea of perfection that it will never take the steps necessary to attempt it. Every situation, every attempt is absolutely unique. Each moment the universe has changed irreversibly. No event has ever been repeated, nor ever will be. Each new experience changes us, and thus changes each new attempt at something.
It is not the height of standard that leads to the defect of perception that thinks mistakes can be repeated, but the absence of standard. The highest standard understands that perfection is reached iteratively through practice, where the absence of standard wishes never to be judged at all, never to have failed, never to have failed multiple times, and most of all, not to fail again, now.
The voice that says “don’t do that, you’ll repeat your mistakes” is the voice of an irredeemable loser.
When I was a young child, I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to study classical violin in a Suzuki School. More people should be aware of the pedagogy and dedication to excellence of Suzuki and his method, which teaches music to children by repetition and imitation before eventually training them in reading musical notation.
The first song we learn to play is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Suzuki’s variations on it. One of the variations is taught with the words:
Doc-tor Su-zk-i says ne-ver be la-zy, just prac-tice, and prac-tice, un-til you go cra-zy.
Interestingly, we use the word ‘practice’ to describe the professional work of doctors, lawyers, accountants, therapists, and others. We speak of a doctor’s ‘medical practice’. The word of course means both the doing of something as well as the preparatory doing of it. Yet the two meanings should be considered more identical than they are. A good doctor is always practicing, that is, doing and correcting error in preparation of doing it again.
Who can afford to approach life in any other way? What precious snowflake of a soul cannot admit to the inevitability of perpetual error and trying, in any endeavor?
As Scott Peck declares unequivocally at the beginning of his masterwork The Road Less Traveled,
“Life is difficult…Life is a series of problems.”
Who among us escapes a minute of even a single episode of this series?
We may at some point fool ourselves into thinking that we have, but eventually there will always be a reckoning with the consequences of those we have pretended not to see. The errors of life find us most when we hide from them.
For most of the past 5 years, I have been in hiding from myself and my problems. After the collapse of Exosphere, the organization I founded in Chile in 2012, and my failed attempt to reboot it upon moving to Spain in 2019 (finally thwarted by the exigencies of the pandemic), I have sought to avoid the pain of needing to “start again at my beginnings” as Kipling phrases it in If.
Even though I have not been idle during this intervening period, starting a completely other sort of business than I have ever attempted before (a commercial mushroom farm), even that was a stealthy means of evasion of myself and my real calling in life, which is represented by the work now we are doing at WILD and the vision that is gradually building around it.
The more I tried to learn lessons from my past, the less I tried doing anything else, the more I lived in fear of the pains that are simply the unavoidable reality of unscripted living. As an entrepreneur since the age of 22, and having never had formal employment since leaving political work at that age, I have seen riches as well as rags — but it’s mostly been rags. That part is hard to admit. It is difficult to think that I was the richest I have ever been at the age of 24, and entered my 40s at near the poorest. Coming from a culture (the United States) that values money above all things, it is a sort of extreme admission of the greatest shame, as if my life has been an unmitigated failure because it has not been a smashing financial success.
However, what I have observed throughout these past 18 years of living on my own terms is that “triumph and disaster” really are the ‘imposters’ Kipling says they are. I have seen success ruin more people than failure, and I have seen the most lasting successes built atop the most miserable and hopeless of ruins. But the only happy people I have encountered have been either total idiots (ignorance really does seem to be bliss), or else people doing what they truly loved and were moved to do from the depths of their soul.
In Self-Reliance, Emerson says “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best, but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace: it is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt, his genius deserts him, no muse befriends, no invention, no hope.”
Talk about not mincing words.
Yet at least in my experience, there is not a shred of exaggeration in them. All of my running from myself availed me nothing. It drove me only into the muddy mire of dis-traction.
We talk about “distractions” in a colloquial way that means the things that divert our attention. Distraction includes this attentive deficit, but the word more literally means the loss or absence of traction. In other words, no forward motion — the image of being stuck and spinning wheels in sand or mud comes to mind.
Thus, it is more appropriate to speak of the causes or sources of dis-traction than to talk about distractions.
Simply put, everything causes dis-traction that does not directly contribute to one’s mission or objectives. We need not focus our entire lives on a single, narrow objective, and most of the time should not allow ourselves such a stifling, two-dimensional attitude. But whatever the total set of objectives might contain, whatever does not move one toward one or more of them is by definition holding us back from them.
These causes of dis-traction, those ‘other things’, those ‘nice to haves’ those ‘there’s nothing inherently wrong with them’ are the real enemies of our lives and purposes. The obviously erroneous, undeniably fallacious actions are not what hold us back most, but rather those things that we feel are neutral, not bad, quite fine — the why nots? of daily living.
For me those things have, over the years and at different times, variously included: reading the news, weed, board games & video games, social media & dating apps, cooking elaborate meals, texting, TV series — well, it’s a pretty predictable list, isn’t it?
Yet amidst this legion of causes of distraction, certainly none figures as prominently as my fear of repeating mistakes, enduring familiar pains over again, and accepting as the cost of forward motion the feeling of backward motion.
Sometimes you have to go backward in order to go around the pit where you were stuck in order to move forward. All too often, you have to go from the mud pit to the weeds to the sand before eventually finding solid ground again. That doesn’t mean you are stupid, or should have avoided ever going there in the first place. It only means those are the conditions of where you happened to end up, and if you want to leave those conditions, that is the price you have to pay to make it out.
The only easy way to avoid these costs is to gaslight yourself into contentment, which is the squalor in which most of our society decides to live. Getting stuck in the mud, we are told to learn to love the mud, to make a well-appointed home in it, and most of all, not to call it mud.
The enslavement to salaries, rents & mortgages, credit card payments, and other squalid paths of necessity is improved aesthetically by the trappings of consumerism: restaurants, social gatherings, shiny objects, and new shoes.
No wonder we face record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
We are about as far from our true and wild Nature as we could possibly be while still maintaining any pretense of functionality — and if you haven’t notice, all of those pretenses are now wearing very thin.
We have exchanged the legitimate suffering of the struggle in Nature for the very illegitimate suffering of the struggle of human society. We traded Nature’s exigencies of living freely for society’s requirement of living ignominiously in servitude.
This exchange of legitimate suffering for illegitimate is what Jung describes as “neurosis,” and we have reached the edge of how much neurosis can be tolerated before the organism is no longer fit to survive.
Here we arrive at the most severe cause of my personal dis-traction all of these years: anger.
I have been irredeemably angry at these phenomena ever since I was no longer busy pursuing my calling in life. Everywhere I would look, everywhere I would turn, every person I would encounter reminded me of how grotesque life has become, and the futility of trying to fight against the grotesqueness. I burned in my anger and resentment, and it burned me back.
For the want of a quick fix that could resolve the whole complex of misery of modern life, I did nothing at all and sought refuge in the manifold of activities I described earlier. But they were the secondary causes of my distraction. My anger, it turns out, was the primary cause of it.
Even writing about it in the past tense seems a bit dishonest. Rather, it continues to be my struggle day to day. This essay has only been written because about a week ago, I declared to myself a new mantra for my personal life:
Everything must change, or nothing will.
Through the depths of despair and nihilism, I traveled unaided by these petty amusements, and with the support of my most longsuffering friend and colleague, crawled through the muck and mire of my psyche and its accumulated resistances, and took the simple advice that GOD gave to the prophet Elijah when Elijah was hiding from his own problems in the wilderness: sleep and eat.
At the time of writing these thoughts, I have not looked at the Internet, checked a single messaging app or my email, taken a puff of weed, or spoken to anyone who was not physically present in front of me in more than 5 days. I have gone to bed early, and awoken with the sun, walked my dogs, done my laundry, written in my journal, and wailed at the moon. But all of it has felt better than almost anything has felt for many years. I know that I cannot maintain such extreme abstinence from the means of the world forever and will have to strike a new balance, but I am beginning to see that a certain radicality is unavoidable if I want to maintain the clarity and independence of mind that I now feel, and which had escaped me for too long.
I will conclude here with the words of The Master, which seem more real and poignant to me today than they ever have: “if your eye causes you offense, pluck it out.”
And analogously, if your iPhone causes you distraction, smash it.
If your enjoyments cause you to lose focus, learn to hate them.
Shatter every last petty idol until only your truest will and mission in life remain.
If you do not know what those are yet, start smashing until you find that last element you cannot at last destroy in your mind.
Then you will know your work in this world, and then you will be free to do it.
That is redemption.