What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
Thinking about my own contenders for that title is a nightmarish undertaking. I relive countless relationship blunders, work miscalculations, and poor life decisions. It’s a part of being human to have moments we would take back if we could, to avoid hurting others, to avoid hurting ourselves.
But to quote an ancient proverb, innumerable legal cases, and Caine from Matthew Woodring Stover’s brilliant Heroes Die, “You can’t unring the bell.”
Barring time travel, what is, is.
We are left with the fallen pieces of whatever we’ve broken and the challenge of reassembling them. But we know the fixed version will always be compromised, rendered weaker than the original, no matter how we try to mend the breaks. For small things, this is an acceptable finish, and we can resume our lives unburdened by the incident.
But what if the mistake is so big you can’t fix it?
This question lies at the heart of Trespassers. A young officer in charge of a battleship’s night shift makes a choice driven by a combination of ego and patriotism. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Lieutenant Commander Anderson Cross’s decision would be a mistake of the first kind, easily fixed and put away. This time, it puts his ship on the path to disaster. For the rest of the series, he must contend with the realization that his decision directly results in a holy war that will claim countless lives. He must contend with the realization that his decision turned the dream of first contact with an alien race into a nightmare. Cross’s story is the Big Idea of the tale—how do we come to terms with a choice gone wrong?
Despite the best intentions, Cross makes a mistake—partly a result of his actions, partly a result of circumstance, but now entirely his to own. In facing this failure, he has more choices to make. Some of them naturally go awry because perfection is more often sought than achieved.
How can a person, any person, bear up under such intense pressure without shattering?
His long-time-friend and sometimes-romantic-partner Lieutenant Commander Kate Flynn faces her own set of choices as events unfold. She must decide how to help Cross overcome his error, how to tell him that his fear of confronting that failure is causing him to make more poor decisions. She has to choose whether to risk their friendship by telling him the hard truth.
Cross and Kate are you and I, are all of us. We consistently wrestle with the fallout from our own mistakes, and we strive to help others through the pain and confusion when they fall. Often, we find the edge of the thin line that separates help from harm only after we’ve left it behind.
These are the moments when we discover who we really are.
These are the moments when we identify our true friends.
These are the moments that make us.
For the characters in Trespassers, the stakes are monumental as they travel the thinnest of paths at the border of life and death. Hopefully, the mistakes we make in our daily lives have lesser impact. In both cases, these ongoing challenges we create for ourselves are pivotal in our learning, growth, and maturation. Each new mistake teaches us vital things about the world and our place in it.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a [person] perfected without trials.” Our mistakes are self-imposed trials, granted by the universe to inspire our growth. Our response to them may lead us on the path toward perfection—or at least toward a better self.
Perhaps the best result we can hope for is embodied in the Japanese practice of kintsugi, which finds beauty in the rejoining of things once broken. The restoration is made obvious with application of gold lacquer, and the glittering repairs add to the history of the item being preserved. The original then incorporates the art and vision of the restorer and becomes somehow greater for its destruction and resurrection.
Cross will grow through his own rejoining, or he will remain forever broken. Kate will grow through her efforts to help him bring his fractured pieces together, or she will sacrifice their relationship in the attempt. The rewards are high, and the risks higher.
I have undeniably grown as a result of my own mistakes, and though I don’t always have it in me to display them with pride, they are nonetheless a vital part of the person I am now. I sincerely hope you can say the same.
So, the Big Idea once more: how do we best face our mistakes? Perhaps the key to success is a simple shift of perspective—to abandon the natural desire to unring the bell and instead accept our trials as an opportunity to become. To remember, as John Campbell aptly put
it: “The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” That light reveals our true self.
Cross’s true self will be revealed against a backdrop of space battles, alien invaders, adventure, and enough explosions for three summer blockbusters. And, of course, mistakes and more mistakes as he grows and learns. Writing a book driven by a mistake threw my own into greater relief, and allowed me to find a way into Cross’s head. I believe the way he faces his challenges, both successfully and unsuccessfully, is authentic to the experiences we all share. It was a pleasure to write such a conflicted character and watch him find his way onto a path, even if it is not (yet) the path to perfection.
I wish you the smallest mistakes necessary to find the way to your own light, and strength in your continuous becoming.