07/09/2012 02:07 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2012

Making Mistakes

There are lots of formulae out there for having a good life and for being happy in particular. As one who values getting to the heart of matters and discovering the truth about what makes us tick, I've found there is something more important than happiness. In fact, it has struck me recently that perhaps the key to living a good life is the capacity to digest making mistakes.

Okay, I don't mean just making mistakes as in making the same mistakes over and again, but rather making mistakes in ways far more dramatic than most of us read about in happiness handbooks or psychology books. In order to digest mistakes as a matter of course, we might just have to go far deeper into the messiness of our relationship blunders than most of us have gone before.

Much of the advice we are given about our key relationships is, to my mind, given from the ceilings of wherever the advice-givers are located at a moment in time. More often than not, many of our least-favorite (though common) moments in our parenting and love lives come to bite us in the basements of the same location. A propos of location, it is often hard to imagine locating ourselves in the dungeons of our mistakes, of the many times we meant to say hello or apologize only to find ourselves saying the least advisable or preferable utterance imaginable.

What I'm suggesting is that if we are looking for honesty to set us free, we may need to broaden the scope of just how uneasy and awkward and obnoxious and out of control we can be, at least some of the time. This is not a moment for crazy liberation moment, but perhaps a moment of truth -- at least the truth that we are capable of anxieties about not only living, but about the degree to which we can be selfish, unreasonable, impulsively angry and insecure, to name a few of the moods and shades--not only of gray but of every color there might be.

One of the problems with relationship advice and parenting advice in particular is that it makes things sound too easy. "Just be patient with your ADD child because fights and power struggles will only set your child off." True, but easier said than done, because any child who tends towards the oppositional will push our control buttons and induce us to feel like failures when we surrender, not to a wanted higher power, but to the lower levels of the basements we might have not even known existed. In other words, in our coming to terms with the floor plans of where and how we live, we may need to admit and then insist on the room to plan for the actuality that when things get rough, the low points get lower.

When we are given permission to stew in our feelings of sorrow and regret and even the feelings that seem to never change, that is often when surprise awareness can come in. Life is not all about talk or all about premeditated meditation. Sometimes we need a mixture of living regular life, processing our feelings and the kind of organic time-outs that can come with listening to music with or without crying, watching a tennis match or even in having an argument. When mistakes are permissible or becoming that way, without being condoned as mere habit, it can become easier to look at our kids or parents or lovers mid-fight and say, "Ouch, why am I still talking? Wanna do over?" This isn't about a formula, but rather a hint that the best insights and resolutions often come with the least amount of pressure for perfection.

I've supervised a young man in the last year in working intensively with a family where we collaborate. Some of the time he has been intensely self-critical, and in fact it has taken him some time to know the four children, not to mention the parents and their own complications. Truth be told, he is coming to understand that our work is best when we admit either knowing little or knowing something about something but not in any continuous sense. At one point in speaking about specifics, I said something like, "You know how crazy-making it is to feel helpless and not to know anything about anything and to only start to know something when you can process it with someone else, and then only sometimes? Well, maybe that is beginner's mind, rather than what is advertised as being so calm, so unattainably calm for those of us who breathe intensity in ourselves and then in those we care for or work with."

It was a good supervision, a good conversation and it underscored how often, the best way to teach kids is to model by example and the best way to teach about mistakes is to help others know the rhythms of living for real instead of artificially sweetened versions of calmness.

Sometimes we need to take a rest, sometimes fight something out, sometimes change it all up. If we're going for the gold, for real, in getting to know ourselves and another or many others, I think we have to expand our notion of normal, to extend what is real in the realm of just how crazy messy life can be. Then comes the real hope of practice: Being honest about what went wrong or what was confusing in the first place.