Screw Up

Man, I really messed up at my job yesterday. I'm an instructor for the American Red Cross, primarily teaching First Aid of various stripes. Yesterday I had two classes, one at a business out of town which went well and one in Vancouver, Washington that did not. The Vancouver class went wrong mostly because I tried to run it from Portland, Oregon.

I wrote the wrong destination down, completely my own fault. When the courses' start time came around I thought, "this sudden rain storm may have bogged down traffic." When the call from a student came in asking where I was I thought, "Oh man, I'm an idiot."

Now, many times people sign up for my classes at the tail end of a deadline for work. There's a standard rescheduling/refunding method for classes but I knew many people could have a problem if they didn't get certified right away. I asked if people could wait for me. Google claimed it would take me forty minutes to arrive and then I'd have about fifteen minutes of gear set up to do. The students said that Southbound traffic is easier (Google claimed it would take them 20 minutes to arrive) and, since I was already set up, things would get started much quicker. More than half the class decided to drive down to me. Ten minutes after that decision I received another call.

There was a man threatening to kill himself on the Interstate bridge between Vancouver and Portland. Police had stopped traffic in both directions. All of the students were stuck on that bridge for an indeterminate amount of time.  The night continued to run just as smoothly as it began. I ended up training a few people in Portland, driving to Vancouver and training another man there, and then writing up an after-action report to document my foolishness for Red Cross records.

Why am I sharing this? Because I feel fine. When I received the initial call revealing my mistake, adrenaline flooded my body. In the past, that initial embarrassment would have blossomed into a panic and shame that would have crippled me in the moment and followed me for days. Not anymore (perhaps I should simply say, not this time?). I had, and have, genuine concern for my mistake and for those it affected. That's why I spent the evening getting as many people certified as I could. It was all I could do. The students didn't need me to feel bad, they needed me to certify them. I was very apologetic, sincerely so, but when it came to my job I was confident, instructed them without cutting corners, and just got things done.

It was Stoic practice that allowed me, a person who spent much of life crippled by anxiety and a resultant fear of embarrassment, to turn an unfortunate event into a somewhat better event. It was small daily attempts to not just read words but embody the Stoic mindset that allowed me to do what Marcus Aurelius advised and, "not...feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human --however imperfectly-- and fully embrace the pursuit you've embarked on."

I know I'm writing like I triumphed over an invading army when all I did was clean up my mess as best I could. I just want it documented that Stoicism changed me. For all it's smallness and all the grace that other people are often willing to give, mistakes like yesterday's used to leave marks on me. Waking up unscathed is worth celebrating.

If you have similar issues with personal mistakes, Episode Eight of Good Fortune, "When We Stumble," might be for you. Podcast here. Transcript here.

Past and Present Fears

I have a longstanding mistrust of ledges. I can't point to any event that kicked off this minor phobia. I never had a cliff face give out underneath me. In fact, this fear rarely even applies directly to myself. It kicks in when other people are near ledges. I remember standing on a wooden bridge in Massachusetts as a young child. My even younger brother was looking through the railing at the bay waters below. It chilled me. He wasn't in any real danger, but I was convinced he would fall. This pattern has continued through life. When people I care about are near ledges, I abandon all faith in physics. I hadn't had these sort of thoughts for quite a while, so I was under the impression that I had overcome this irrational belief. However, this week I've been spending time on a ninth story balcony with my one year old daughter and, guess what, I am not over this phobia!

From Flickr user: simpleInsomnia

From Flickr user: simpleInsomnia

Let me give a shout out to my girl, Freyja, for helping daddy practice his Stoicism on a daily basis.

When a person falls and hits their head on a hard floor I usually take the Stoic approach.

"What just happened?"

"Someone hit their head." 

"Nothing more?"

"Nothing more."

Then I help the person up and go grab some ice; I'm helpful, I'm calm. I thought this meant I was a decent Stoic, but maybe it just means I'm a bit calloused when it comes to adult human beings? Because when Freyja smacks her head on the hard floor I am not instantly calm and collected. I have to work at it. I have to actively invoke a Stoic perspective. My daughter provides a constant reminder that unconscious 'stoicism' isn't necessarily Stoicism. So thanks, Freyja! You're the best.

My little girl is also good at reminding me of old, and now resurfaced, fears. Is that my baby pressed up against a glass railing with a nine story drop beneath her? Why yes it is! Do I feel nauseated by this fact? Yes. Yes I do!

Stoics often practice Premeditatio Malorum, where potential misfortunes are rehearsed in advance. When people first hear about this, they often assume we're attempting to deaden ourselves to future emotions. That isn't what we're doing. Frankly, if picturing the worse case scenario over and over was in itself psychologically useful, then I'd be long past fretting over my daughter's view of the local skyline. Premeditatio is not about callouses, it's about practicing a useful view of events.

One of my favorite summaries of Stoic thought is by Keith Seddon who wrote, "We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings." It's this practice, finding what we can do in light of what is actually happening, that is worthy of rehearsal. I am not, yet, capable of fully reigning in the panic that comes with my ledge phobia, but I have taken the opportunity to practice a Stoic point of view.

I am not, by the way, rehearsing dire thoughts of a baby falling through the sky. I've checked the railing. It suddenly breaking away is about as likely as our balcony getting struck by a meteor. I am, instead, asking myself what is the worst reaction possible concerning my actual feelings of fear. For instance, I could yell at my child whenever she nears the ledge and perhaps pass on my irrational fear to the next generation. Alternatively, I could sit quietly and stew in my emotions as my family hangs out on the balcony ensuring that we all have less fun on vacation than we could have had. It's these thoughts that return me to my senses. Right now, the primal feelings that freak me out are beyond my grasp, but I am able to build up a comfortable buffer of reasonable thoughts and rescue my time with my loved ones. I acknowledge the skipped heart beats that I have from time to time, then I take a breath and continue enjoying everyone's company.

I've been reminded that vacations do not allow a vacation from right thinking and that new experiences can dredge up old habits of thought. I feel fortunate to get to wrestle with these thoughts in a controlled atmosphere! I'm off to play with my daughter on a balcony. Probably a few feet back from the edge, but hey, we'll be enjoying ourselves.