When I was 7 years old, I broke my teacher’s favorite coffee mug.
She never said it was her mug, but her reaction to my faux-pas (the unfortunate and entirely accidental result of playing the hand slap game too close to her desk) suggested as much.
I don’t recall the exact mug itself. What I DO remember is trudging after her down the seemingly never-ending hallway to the teacher’s lounge.
There, I watched her try and piece together the handle and the base, all the while heaping her frustration on me like hot coals.
That same frustration was apparent in all of her interactions with me the rest of the year – not that she was ever truly “nice” before then – and it served as a constant reminder of my actions.
It was then that I understood: mistakes can live with you. They can brand you. Make others treat you differently. Make you see yourself differently.
I didn’t like how it felt, paying for my one misdeed over and over.
And, instead of coming to the more logical, adult conclusion that maybe Miss DeLong had some personal issues to work out (possibly facing up to her own misguided decision to become a first-grade teacher), I vowed to never make another mistake like that again.
Mistakes led to disapproval – specifically from those in power – and more than anything, I wanted the people in charge to like me and reflect back to me that I was a “good person.”
From then on, I lived my life with one goal in mind: get the approval of my superiors. After all, I couldn’t see God. How else was I supposed to know I was doing it right?
While half of my peers were asking themselves “What Would Jesus Do?” and the other half were asking “how can I not get caught for this?” I was asking myself: “what will my teacher/ parents/ youth pastor think of me if I do this?”
Premarital sex and hallway hanky-panky were out. So was smoking and drinking.
I had to focus on good grades and extra-curriculars. Because going to college is what good people do. It’s what those in authority expect of me. It’s what makes for a successful life.
Even if it demands going into debt.
A little bit of debt for a four-year university is surely better than the alternative – a community college. Those are for people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Drifters.
The last thing anybody at my posh private high school wanted were the words “undecided” or “community college” next to their name on the graduation program.
It was a death sentence.
You may as well say you plan to smoke dope behind the Walgreens for the rest of your life.
Those kids clearly didn’t care about their future. If they did, they’d find a fucking co-signer and defer that shit.
Not to do so would be a HUGE mistake. And I didn’t make mistakes.
I was confident enough to gamble my future financial security on what I knew would lead to a lucrative job and a successful life. That’s what winners do.
And when it doesn’t work out the first time – when those four blissful college years come to an end and drop you on the corner of “what’s next?” and “oh shit, the job market sucks” – you do it again.
Because if a Bachelor’s degree isn’t enough to make you important, a Master’s degree surely is.
Plus, you can get thousands of FREE DOLLARS just by signing a little piece of paper. It’s so simple!
Two years later, I graduated with a degree that says: “NOW, I’M SOMEBODY.” (Yeah, somebody with enough debt to be a lawyer and not neeeearly enough credentials to make sweet lawyer stacks).
It didn’t take long – maybe six months – for me to realize I’d made a mistake. And not just any mistake.
At 26, I’d made possibly the biggest mistake of my life.
One that would affect every financial decision down the road: having kids, buying a house and a car, saving for the future.
I shook hands with the devil, and now his giant claws held all of my biggest, boldest dreams for ransom.
Everything I now love and hope for – opportunities to travel, the lifestyle I want to create for my kids – is limited by a choice I made before I was old enough to rent a car.
After all of my attempts to do everything right, I made a colossal mistake.
In my effort to earn respect and recognition through proof of how smart I am, I did the dumbest thing possible.
How do you bounce back from that?
The question keeps me awake at night. And last night, it burned into my psyche so obtrusively that I could no longer hold it in.
As my husband and I sat down to enjoy HBO + a smoke (the parental equivalent of Netflix + chill), out poured all of these worries about what I’d done. Not that he hadn’t heard it all before:
Am I bad person?
Have I ruined absolutely everything?
Aren’t you even a little mad?
It takes a wise person to understand that drudging up an unchangeable past is a fool’s errand, and my husband is no fool.
Instead of joining me in the pit of wishful thinking or raking me over the coals of hard truth, he chose a more stable middle ground.
Escorting me back through the events of the last decade – outcomes spawned by this one single choice I view as a failing – he recounted all of the things we gained along the way:
My decision prompted a move from California to Oregon, forcing us out of our newlywed comfort zones and into a life we could design together, from scratch.
With nobody to rely on but each other and no outside input guiding our choices, we were empowered to build a reality – our reality – in which the two could truly become one (the Spice Girls would be proud).
Not to mention the amazing friends we made, some of whom still push and inspire me.
And if we hadn’t moved to Oregon, getting a small taste of the change and powerful growth that independence brings, we might not have ever moved to Montana.
Without this move to Montana, who knows if we would have had Joey or June, or traveled to Costa Rica? Would Nick have found his passion for yoga? Would we be “us?”
There’s no denying that my fancy-pants, overpriced education in conflict resolution has been indispensable in helping us create a healthier marriage. If I could, would I roll the dice and trade in my debt for whatever our alternate reality might have been?
Because here’s the thing: the mistakes we make, make us. In some ways, they make us better.
Do we still have to pay for them? Unfortunately, yeah (although that doesn’t stop me from hoping that a rich long-lost auntie leaves me all of her money to pay down my debt).
Would life be even better had we not made them? Hard to say. If you avoid one landmine, there’s always another waiting further along the path.
The important thing is that God is every bit as present and active in our lives, no matter which one trips us up.
He’s still pouring out rich mercy and love all over us every day, working out evil for good, making a way through the waters, bringing us manna in the desert.
My story didn’t end with one mistake. Perhaps it just began. And while that mistake will follow me, affecting my financial options until the day I pay it back (or, more likely, die), it doesn’t define me.
I am more than my mistakes. So are you. We are who we are because of and in spite of them.
And even in the midst of the worst mistake possible, we are a people dearly loved by a God who moves fucking mountains.
Even a debt the size of my mortgage can’t take that away.
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