Column: Others’ Mistakes Become Our Gains


A full moon in October reminds me of the Halloween mischief I committed when I was young. In the city where I grew up, the days before Halloween night was a time for mayhem after dark, for soaping car windows and overturning trash barrels, even for lighting small fires in leaf piles. It was a ritual we learned from our peers and passed along. We were 12 or 13 years old, and this was behavior our parents would never allow, but somehow they released us into the night.

The path to ethical behavior is rarely straight and narrow. There must be others like me who remember some of the past with embarrassment and shame because there is so much trial and error in becoming an adult, so many mistakes and postures, so many things said and done to later regret. As a parent and grandparent, and as someone with a career spent in education, I know that we teach with our words and example; but the truth is that developing values and ethical behavior takes time and involves more than words and lessons. This is not to say that young people cannot behave ethically — there are wonderful examples to witness every day — but integrity and wholeness take years, perhaps most of a lifetime. When I was 13, I already knew better than to run wild at night around Halloween, and yet I did. And then I didn’t. There was no epiphany and no lesson, just a gradual shaping of my values from within.

It might seem that we develop values by defying our elders until we feel regret, but it’s subtler than that. We don’t have to break every rule to test its value because we absorb a lot vicariously by watching others suffer from their mistakes and misjudgments — real people we know or those we hear about or see in the news. And then, of course, there is literature.

What better place is there to learn about values than literature? Not just the narratives of the Bible, but novels, stories, plays and poetry where readers can be transported without consequence into new lives, and where the young, through empathy, can face a moral or psychological dilemma in an unfamiliar context. Remember when you first identified with Anne Frank or Huck Finn and learned about freedom and powerlessness, about the limits of human kindness and the responsibilities that come with being human, all at very little personal risk because you were safe in your bedroom or a library chair? As adults we still identify with characters, and when we reread a work after many years, we often see how our thinking has changed over time.

Some see danger lurking in the books children might encounter, and our country has a long history of censorship in schools and libraries that includes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and even Stuart Little. The censors act out of fear that certain characters and content of literature will mislead the young into ruined lives. But often the value lies in the very parts that cause the adult concern.

I grew up when J.D. Salinger’s book was new and controversial and read it first when I was quite impressionable. Although Holden Caulfield delighted and intrigued me with his irreverent voice, I never longed to be like him because his adventures were in tailspin and his life was a wreck. In the messy truths of literature people have an opportunity to learn values because heroes make so many mistakes and suffer so profoundly. Think of Hamlet or Sula or Anna Karenina. Or Faustus or Antigone or Satan, the fallen angel of Paradise Lost. The list could go on forever.

True ethical behavior will always be developed in the world of experience where we are challenged every day with fresh opportunities to test what we have learned. If we look back critically over our lives, we see a disorderly process that eventually jells into a coherent set of beliefs. We don’t all make the same mistakes, and some of us mature more quickly than others and more completely; but the process always involves trial and error and dramatic reversals, some of them experienced via the world of literature.

At my age I can be sanguine under the light of an October moon because most of my mistakes are behind me. How much harder it is for parents to trust that the lessons they teach will eventually show up in the behavior of their children, and how tempting it is to believe that a misstep will alter a life forever. I think we all know better. The important lessons are hatched in the complications and paradoxes that come with being human, and it is through our mistakes and the mistakes of others, whether real or fictional, that we learn how to behave ethically.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.