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  • Reverend James Squire

Missteps and Specks

The steps up to Air Force One have been a humbling moment for our leaders. In spite of all the important news that occurred this week from hate crimes against Chinese Americans to harsh words delivered to Russia and China, it seems that the conservative press, in particular, focused on President Biden’s three trips up the steps. He is in good company as President Obama had his misstep moment. President Gerald Ford’s misstep coming down the steps was possibly the most dangerous to cause injury. Trump was taped going up the steps with toilet paper stuck to his shoe.

While some saw this as an embarrassment of a public official which seemed to be played over and over. I and others saw it differently. Why?

I began my ministry being called to be on the staff of Trinity Church in Swarthmore. Among other things it was made clear to be that I was chosen for my academic credentials and completing a program in counseling at Duke University Medical Center. Trinity Church was a large church that was one of the most socially active in the Diocese. There was diversity in the parish including faculty members and the Religion Department Chair at Swarthmore College. No matter what the diversity there was one theme that described the people in the parish. They were smart and engaged. They had high standards. After every sermon that I preached, there was feedback. I often referred to my seven years there as a swing through an intellectual jungle gym and I loved every minute of it.

Then it happened! In the middle of preaching a sermon, I lost my place in my manuscript. I had a misstep. It seemed to take forever to sort things out in the pulpit so I looked up and said to the congregation that “sorry but I had lost my place!” They erupted with laughter and applause which, given my own insecurities, I interpreted their response as laughing at me. I was embarrassed. However, I had it all wrong. As people were leaving, they commented, “Thank you for your misstep. It frees us all up to make mistakes.”

After I arrived at the Episcopal Academy, during a chapel service one of my student spiritual leaders was leading the prayers and got totally lost as well. He simply looked over at me and said, “Rev, I have no idea where I am!”. He wasn’t just any student. He was that student who did everything right in the classroom and on the sports field and was admired by all. When the congregation heard his plea to me, they too broke into laughter and applause.

Needless to say, I had already had the same gift of a misstep given to me so I could share my experience with him. He laughed and felt great. The congregation throughout the day indicated how great it was that he could just look over at me and, for all to hear, say, “Rev, I have no idea where I am.” It loosened the community up. This was just another example of this student’s incredible leadership.

I think that both those who viewed Biden’s video tripping up the steps of Air Force One and the EA community hearing a student say that “he was lost” had two ways of viewing these honest missteps. It could be such as the Trinity Church, Swarthmore congregation made or mire themselves in embarrassment that a mistake had been made that means we aren’t perfect. Missteps are important to learning and living. In fact, they should be celebrated. We live in a culture that doesn’t support this attitude, and we live in it at our own peril.

A performance culture which emphasizes production over creativity which emphasizes try and try again building from one’s missteps has proven to be more productive. We need a switch in our culture from being fearful about mistakes to one that embraces and celebrates them. It is what our greatest of inventors such as Edison and the Wright brothers knew.

We either learn to fail (make missteps) or fail to learn. In the 2018 French Open, Sloane Stephens was defeated by the number one tennis player in the world, Simona Halep. Sloane had a high regard for Halep and following the match paid her opponent a great tribute. After taking time to reflect on her own performance, Sloane posted an inspiring message, “You win or you learn, but you never lose”.

The missteps up the stairs to enter Air Force One taken by President Biden and other presidents is like a cultural Rorschach Test from a leader. We will know that we will be getting closer to a productive growth producing nation when those missteps are celebrated, yes even, with applause as opposed to embarrassment by another. When we see our missteps as something that produces learning, we will move to being more open to that which produces a “place” for a sense of psychological safety. It is a fact that we will trip because one thing is absolutely sure, we will. That is what makes us fully human.

Recall that biblical axiom in the Gospel of Matthew: “First remove the beam from your own eye and then you can see clearly to remove the speck in your your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3) Missteps and specks!!!!

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