Sep 12, 2013 0 Share

Everyone Makes Mistakes

Author's brother, mother and father standing outside with bikes.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

It’s funny how, without even meaning to, Willie teaches me so much about life. 

My husband and I are on vacation with my parents and brother, and I've been savoring the simple pleasure of doing life alongside my family. Sometimes, having no plan but to relax and enjoy one another's company can yield surprising results. Yesterday afternoon was a perfect example. At the time, Willie was watching “Sesame Street,” which featured a story entitled “Everyone Makes Mistakes.” Since I wasn't busy, I pulled up a chair and watched with him. It had been years since I'd seen the episode, but still, I knew it well. 

In case this short didn't feature as prominently in your childhood as it did in mine, here's the story. One day, Big Bird and Little Bird are walking around Sesame Street. Big Bird doesn't watch where he's going, and walks into his neighbor's clothes line, scattering clean laundry on the ground. It's an honest mistake, but he's distressed. What will neighbor Mrs. Washington say? And so Big Bird begins to invent scenarios, each one wilder than the last. A circus came through Sesame Street, and the giraffes scattered the laundry! A rodeo rode by and knocked the clothes down! A fire truck sped through the sheets! A tornado hit! (“Hang on to your feathers, Little Bird!” Big Bird cries.) All the while, Little Bird keeps piping up, “Big Bird, why don't you …?” He's trying to say, “Why don't you tell the truth?” but Big Bird interrupts; he doesn't want to hear it. That is, until Mrs. Washington arrives. Big Bird starts to tell his stories, but then he recounts what really happened. Mrs. Washington accepts his apology, and Big Bird helps her re-wash the clothes. Once again, all is well on Sesame Street. 

As the episode ended, Willie clicked on another video, but I sat still, pondering what we'd seen. I thought about how important that video's message is for my brother and me. We are a pair of perfectionists. We'd like to think that, if we just try hard enough, we can avoid errors altogether. And I don't think we're alone in this struggle. 

In both “Sesame Street” and life, I see a pattern. We encounter a problem, a reality we'd rather not face. So we invent a thousand stories in our minds about what might have happened, what we wish would happen … anything but reality. This is perfectly reasonable; after all, reality can be brutal. In reality, mistakes are made. And we'd rather do just about anything other than admit our part in them. We'd rather tell tall tales than be vulnerable. I know, because this is how I used to operate during the dark time when Willie was having meltdowns every day. I didn't understand what was happening—no one did—so I blamed my brother. I told myself that my brother was lost, that he was intentionally hurting himself and us. Why? Because the reality—that he wasn't in control of his behavior, but he was still himself; that he did love us, but couldn't show it—seemed too painful to bear. But that's the thing about the truth. It seems so scary, but it's actually liberating in a way that lies can never be.  

This morning, my family headed out for a bike ride, and I snapped a picture of them standing in the sun. The air smelled like sunscreen, and my parents and brother looked beautifully, entirely ordinary. 

“Have fun on your ride! And hang on to your feathers, Little Bird!” I said to Willie, and he laughed. “Hang on to your feathers!” he echoed, with a big smile. He loves it when I quote from his favorite videos. I used to think that speaking in “video” was silly; now, I'm just thankful to see my brother smiling back at me. I used to think that the world would end if I made a mistake; now, I know that everybody makes mistakes. I used to pledge allegiance to my own explanations; now, I find that people can surprise you, that being in the here and now is better than any story I could invent.