The Right Mistake

Thelonius Monk, the jazz pianist, had a “unique improvisational style” Wikapedia tells us. He once said, after what he thought was disappointing performance, that good jazz consisted of making the right mistakes.

Robbie Robertson (late of the Band) borrowed that idea for his song, “The Right Mistake”.

We can call to mind scientific discoveries that resulted from mistakes or were at least accidental: small pox vaccine, penicillin, insulin, the Pap smear, as well as inventions including X-rays, the microwave oven and, apparently corn flakes. But, in addition to music and science, can making the right mistake be a good thing personally? Should we be trying, like Robbie Robertson, to make the right mistake?

Shakespeare’s King Lear did that. In his eighties, he decided to divide his kingdom, the ancient kingdom of Briton among his 3 daughters. Then he got annoyed at Cordelia, the only one who really loved him, and gave her share to the other two. They immediately set about curtailing his privileges.  He had a retinue of “an hundred” men that followed him as he sojourned first with one nasty daughter and then with the other. One of them ordered him, “a little to disquantity your train”. He bargained for 50, they cut him down to one and then to none. In despair and rage, he left the castle and went out onto the shelterless moor just as the storm of the century bore down upon it. By the time, he stumbled across supporters and rudimentary shelter, he was soaked to the skin and raving mad.

What he said made little sense, but already he had changed. He was no longer the autocratic egotist who demanded that his daughters compete in a contest to see who loved him best. He was humbled to such an extent that he sat at the feet of a homeless derelict, calling him a philosopher. By the time he was rescued by Cordelia, he was ready to live out his life in prison, if need be, so long as he is with her:

As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

His great mistake has allowed him to learn to be a loving human being. He does not get his wish to live such a life. He is one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes and he must pay a price. That is really irrelevant because he has accomplished a much greater goal by becoming more completely human.

We perfectionists can relax it seems, for even our most egregious mistakes can lead us where we need to go.

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