The Good Reason We Wish Bad Things Upon Other People

She misses yet again.

My daughter Caitlin and I are playing ping-pong. She’s only eight years-old and still waiting on some of her hand-eye coordination (it may never arrive), so she misses the ball almost every time. Nevertheless, with a solemn look on her face, she persists, swinging with determination at every ball I send her way.

Then, several minutes into our play, she catches one solidly, firing it right back at me.

I’m shocked and unprepared for the event. I quickly try to recover but I’m too late—I swing and miss. Suddenly, the solemn look on her face is transformed into something that looks like a sunrise. And she says with delight, “Oh good, I’m not the only one messing up!”

I’m not the only one messing up!

It’s a delightful revelation in ping-pong, but it’s an even more delightful revelation in life, isn’t it? Because in the back-and-forth, ping-pong chaos of life, we are always swinging and missing. We do our best, but our life-eye coordination hasn’t quite arrived (it may never arrive). And I’m pretty sure there’s a name for this situation. It’s called being human.

To be human is to make a mess of things.

And to be human is to hope that someone else messes up, too. It’s the reason we loved America’s Funniest Home Videos, and it’s the reason we still love any YouTube video in which any guy lands painfully on his, well, you know. We wish messes upon other people, not because we wish for bad things to happen to others, but because we wish for unloneliness to happen to us.

While we may be afraid of making mistakes; we’re most afraid of making mistakes alone. We’re not ultimately so concerned with botching things; we’re concerned there is something uniquely broken about the way we do our botching. Indeed, it’s one of the healing elements of any twelve-step program—the end of loneliness in your brokenness.

Several years ago, I was a business owner for the first time, and I totally whiffed on renewing my corporation’s license. In a panic, I called my business partner and asked him if he had renewed his own corporate license. He said he’d forgotten to do so as well. And suddenly, no panic. I’d still made a mess, but I wasn’t alone, and it turns out the fear was more about being alone in my mess than about the mess itself.

In other words, “Oh good, I’m not the only one messing up!” With delight.

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

I’d tweak that a little: The only thing to fear is fearing alone.

Here’s the catch, though: the only way to discover we’re not alone in our mess is to announce our mess. The only way to discover that others are imperfect is to announce our imperfections and wait to see who declares, “Oh good, I’m not the only one messing up!”

The only path to true belonging is through this kind of risk and vulnerability.

Sure, it’s far safer to rest quietly behind a pristine facade. Yes, it’s easier to hunker down in moral outrage and political diatribes, implying with all of it that we are somehow above the mess—not missing any balls that come our way. Safer and easier, but ultimately, lonelier.

What if, instead, we chose to say, “Hey, I make a mess of that, too.”

What if we decided to truly belong to each other?

It would be, I think, delightful.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.