I’ve always been afraid of making mistakes. If you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I’m a big fan of making mistakes and learning from them, but there’s a disconnect between what I say and what I do. I enjoy creating and building things, but no one would guess how many times I go through the steps in my mind before I actually jump in and try to do anything. I do believe there’s value to thinking through a plan and possible problems before pulling out the nail gun and electrical wires. At the same time, the plan will only take you so far into you get in there and see how things work. Unfortunately, there are projects I’ve spent so much time thinking about, that I never got around to seeing what would actually happen.
As a child, in school, I viewed my purpose as being to get a high grade by not making mistakes. Fundamentally, I hate this approach to education. The day to day work is about practice and exploring and asking questions, not about turning in a right answer and holding my breath for that 100% in red at the top. I passed up so many opportunities to have real conversations and ask deep questions in order to hide anything that might be wrong or to argue over why my grade should be different.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more open to making mistakes. When I started college, I decided to stop looking at my grades, because I knew I’d do well enough, and I wanted to focus on the actual content of my classes. When I moved to Boulder, I became very comfortable spending hours wandering around, lost, until I came across a familiar location; that’s how I’ve learned my way around many parts of this town. I learned that I need to figure out a better technique for hanging things like a coat rack and a mail box, because it’s going to be pretty crooked if I just eyeball it, by trying to hang both items more than once. I’m glad that I tried all of those things, was less than perfect, and that now I am better, even if still not perfect.
However, there are still times when my fear and anxiety about making mistakes leaves me paralyzed. Between Christmas and New Year, I’d made plans to go ice skating with friends. I had plans for exactly how I’d do it—I’d take a hiking poll and put a tennis ball on the pointed end to keep it from getting caught in the ridges and ruts in the ice. (Yes, Lotus, it is one of your tennis balls. I’m sorry, but we all have to make sacrifices sometimes.)
As the day got closer though, my nervousness started to grow. As much as I might think the sighted people would steer clear of the person holding the long stick out in front of her on the ice, you’d be amazed how often they don’t. Every cane-user has at least one story of a sighted person stepping on a cane, breaking it, kicking it out of their hands, or asking what it’s used for. In short, I was worried other people would expect me to see them and move out of their way. The other part of what I was worried about was running into other people. The hiking pole would be to protect me from running into the sides of the rink and to give other people a heads up, but it would still only tell me about the people around me when I tapped them with it. I kept having these visions of a little kid getting his skates tangled up in my pole, hitting the ice, sobbing with blood pouring out of a split lip. Or, maybe, before any of that happened, the people running the rink would tell us that we couldn’t skate without a sighted person if we were blind. Over this past summer, I was caught completely off guard at Woneka Lake when the manager said I couldn’t bring my guide dog out on a paddle boat… something about fur clogging up the gears? Yeah. The point is that, more than once, I’ve had people tell me I can’t participate or be somewhere, either because of my dog or because I’m blind. If I have uncertainties about my ability to ice skate safely, maybe the person letting people in will be able to smell it on me and attack. I was picturing the worst possible things happening, and I couldn’t tolerate the idea of doing things imperfectly.
In the end, my anxiety reached a level high enough that I told the group I wasn’t going to go with them. In the past, I probably would have made up something about being sick, but this time I decided to just tell them I was nervous and I wasn’t ready to try it on that day. It’s really hard for me to admit to not doing something because I’m afraid. I feel like people expect me to be completely undaunted, unfazed by the fact that I’m blind. Most sighted people have no idea how many different things might happen on a quick trip to the grocery store, or in trying to find a new coffee shop. I know those are small tasks for many sighted people, but all the things I know might go wrong, or might just be difficult, can make them pretty daunting to me. I don’t want sighted people to see me as less able or different though, so I try to act like all these parts of “normal” life are no big deal to me. When I put on this façade of confidence and calm, it means I have to swallow down all my fears and questions and doubts; I might feel awful inside, but I can’t let anyone else know.
However, in this setting, when I admitted that I was feeling nervous about the plans for the afternoon, I had a chance to try a different way of being in the world. One of the women who was planning to go encouraged me not to run and hide, and then, after I told her I really didn’t want to go anymore, she promised to encourage me next time. Knowing that she understood my fear helped me get back up and make plans to go a week later. Part of it was that if she could face her fears, I didn’t want to seem like a wimp in front of her, and part of it was knowing that I could let down my facade a bit, and confess the fear.
The afternoon was not exactly what I had imagined it would be. I wound up skating with one of those support, walker-type devices. As far as balance goes, I think I could have stayed standing on my own for the most part, the PVC box provided a bit of a bubble to protect small children from me and me from the walls of the rink. I got to have the feeling of moving freely, cutting smoothly through the ice, although I wanted that feeling to continue uninterrupted forever, not just until I heard someone in front of me or I misjudged the turn around the outside of the rink. But even if I’d never been able to stand from the time I laced up those skates, to the time when I replaced them with my worn out old running shoes, at least I did show up and give it a try. I was happier because I was able to skate. Of course, I wound up skating in my own way, not the way you are “supposed to skate, but I know I have to stop worrying about how things turn out, if I’m ever going to escape from a paralyzing need for perfection.
Yesterday, an incident with a neighbor pushed me in the opposite direction. I’ve been working in the garden just past my building in the lengthened daylight, even though it means other people might see me make a mistake; I find comfort in hiding behind the semi-equalizing night. I don’t want to spend the months between now and when we fall back at the beginning of November waiting until darkness is complete to go out and work in the garden, so I’ve challenged myself to go out when everyone else gets the advantage of being able to see me and I can’t see them.
Moving about in the daylight has been going okay though. I can find the garden and orient myself quickly. I already let go of the goal of having a neatly organized garden with straight rows where you always know what little sprout is coming up. A couple of the elementary school-aged girls who live near me have come over to talk and offer help. They make me nervous, because all the things I know I can’t be for them go marching through my head, but they seem to be putting up with the things I am, at least so far. I decided to embrace the probability of the unknown, and suddenly everything is much more fun.
So far, I’ve planted a bunch of onion sets and pea seeds. I dragged the only hose I have out there to water my work, and was feeling pretty good about myself. At that moment, my neighbor came out to point out that my hose was going through his garden, beating down the tulips and daffodils. Yeah. I screwed up. I made a mistake. I felt my body grow warm with the shame of having made a stupid mistake, probably one I wouldn’t have made if I could see. Instead of leaving it there, my neighbor continued to lecture me about what I need to do and why the hose can’t go through his garden and why the flowers can’t stand the hose going through them and why I shouldn’t have done this, etc. Quickly my shame transformed into anger. I stopped apologizing and started nodding “unh-hunh… unh-hunh… unh-hunh;” I can communicate without words right along with the best of them.
In the future, I will have a longer hose, and I will make it go around the light post, which will keep it out of his garden. I’m not stupid, and his first statement would have been enough. However, since anger had taken over from the shame during the time he spent lecturing me, I used the time it took me to carefully pull the hose back out of his garden, contemplating ways to get revenge. The valve to shut off the spigot we both use is inside my unit. I could turn it off, except when I want to use it. He also has a very large truck that spills over his parking spots into mine. I could tell him he needs to take care of that. Next time he starts whining to me about something he should tell his landlord, I could cut him off and tell him I don’t want to hear about it. Revenge is a sweet way to soothe all the shame and fear and anger I have to deal with.
However, as much as I’d like to hurt him in retribution for stirring up emotions I’m trying to learn to overcome, I wonder if learning to deal with the events that make me want to hide away forever in a more gracious way is a wiser way to handle the situation. Sure, it’s what do-gooders and moralizers would say to do, and I usually try to do the opposite of what they say. In this particular case though, my lashing out at my neighbor means I’m doing what the fear would choose. If I manage to do something different, then at least maybe I’ll spend fewer evenings this summer, standing behind my front door, listening for a time when the kids go inside, praying for a chance to be invisible. Maybe I can start to reclaim some of those years I lost to perfection, regrets to the people on whom my imperfection splashes. (Earnest apologies to any flowers I squash along the way.)