Making mistakes, being a failure, growing and maturing, learning how to love — these are all things we spend most of our lives both doing and analyzing. I think my language learning experience in China (both as a student and as a teacher) not only taught me new ways to understand these things, but it also guided me into actually living them in ways I could never have fathomed in the before-China days.
I started out in China studying Chinese during all my free time. It took about two months for me to burn down to a smoking black crisp. Those of you who have tried to mature as quickly as possible in any realm of life (most importantly character) know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s kind of like digging into the bark of a sapling to try to harvest some fruit* when what the poor thing really needs is some weeding and watering, and time to soak in the sunlight.
I actually started learning Chinese when I started making sentences, out loud, to people. I felt embarrassed, up until I finally realized that I was essentially a walking entertainment system for the people of China. I was like a great big blonde-ish puppy dog toy who says ridiculous things and makes everyone laugh. One time I told some coworkers we Americans traditionally eat “a kind of penis” on Thanksgiving. It wasn’t long before the whole school was teasing me and I’m pretty sure my face was permanently red for that whole week. There was also the time I tried to order soup with my meal over the phone and was told they didn’t sell extra soup on the side, only to discover later that I’d been asking emphatically for sugar. And I ended my first response to a housing advertisement with “Are you romantically interested in me?”
Of course, this made me ask: What role do mistakes play in the daily process of learning to love — that slow reversing of my cramped self-focused psyche and turning of my energies outwards: towards first God and then neighbor?
Well, most of the Chinese I speak is really only a product of the mistakes I made and the feedback I received. I can only guess that learning love is not much different.
One of the key things we learned in teacher training was that our only unique task as teachers was to provide our students with feedback. Unlike internet resources and foreigners chatting in bars, teachers can provide an attentive ear for mistakes and then careful guidance to help students listen for and correct their own errors. We usually do this with questions:
“Are you sure ‘horrible’ is the word you want?”
“Which of these sentences has the verb in the right tense?”
“How do you pronounce this word?”
As one of those people who shies fearfully away from challenging others as well as being challenged, thinking about feedback in the realm of life was eye-opening for me. Just in these past months I’ve asked, or been asked:
“How do you know that’s the right thing to do?”
“What concrete changes will that realization cause you to make in your life?”
“How exactly do you see the Christian doctrine of people as sinners empower its believers?”
Neither the asker nor the answerer really knew the answer. But good feedback doesn’t give an answer. It trains us learners to think critically about and change what we believe, say, and do.
Love’s Labor’s Lost
I lost a friend last summer by over-scheduling myself, cutting a lunch date short, and hurting her. The experience of her anger and refusal to forgive felt crushing. But I knew, even in the midst of the despair I felt, that this failure was going to change the way I express love forever.
I stole the title of this post from a Shakespeare play that I love because it ends, not with the superficial chemical high of a couple’s kiss and rash promise to be together forever, but with a challenge to wait and to grow. The leading lady challenges the leading man (who is known for being a funny guy) to spend a year in a hospital bringing laughter into the life of the dying. She says she will accept him after a year if one of two things happens: He manages to use his gift for the good of others, or he discovers this “gift” is meaningless and discards it. As he cleverly points out, twelve months is “too long for a play”.
If I were to follow the leading lady’s advice and try to redeem my vast sea of mistakes by making something out of them, perhaps I could hold out for a time. But I know I would eventually drown. Miraculously, because of something as weak, foolish, un- sophisticated and anti-intellectual as the Cross of Jesus, I can walk on the sea of my failures. The redemption is done, Christ beckons, and all I have to do is trust and follow.
It’s not an easy walk. Sometimes I just want to sit down and let Him go do His own thing. I get sick of making sentences that turn out to be wrong or are ridiculed, and I get tired of trying to express love to people and hurting them instead. But each time I’m tempted to stop my stumbling, I’ve been unable to deny that He Himself is enough reason to keep going.
To paraphrase Peter, “Who else am I gonna follow? You have the words of life.” With each labor I lose, I step into a new twelvemonth which presents a new challenge, and the kind of growth that only actually living my mistakes could ever produce in me.
And now we get to the part that is exciting for me: the part where you share the ways you have been learning how to love!