A lesson from Othello + a broken vase


“….one whose hand…threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe…”

~ William Shakespeare, Othello


Don’t all jump on me for how problematic the play is. This quote merely summons a powerful image, one that stayed with me ever since HS – how anyone might feel when facing consequences that no amount of wisdom, regret, repentance or effort can hope to reverse. And this isn’t the whole story, so let’s leave Mr. Othello to the end, and in the meantime lighten this up a bit, shall we? Let’s not think of outright murder, or anything disturbing like that, but of something milder, like breaking that vase that’s been in the family since the time of the dinosaurs, and your beloved great-great grandmother wanted you (and not your cousin!) to have.

Now remember in the last post I restored the good name of good intentions, and urged against using that apparent 20/20 hindsight to judge past decisions based solely on the outcome. (unless it’s a great one!) But obviously, there are times when we must allow we made a mistake, got carried away by whatever, or else we’ve been neglectful and postponed or ignored something imagining it will either solve itself or go away. And then there are accidents, misplaced trust, etc. I’d say given the many options, it’s important to determine what determines accountability, don’t you think? I mean if we’re going to punish ourselves, or take on the burden of regret and then hope to learn something, let’s not waste it.

And so we turn for inspiration to the law. Neglect comes in three flavors: guilty, kinda guilty and not guilty. The guilty kind implies carelessness and folly on our part…like putting the treasured heirloom in the dishwasher, letting junior play with matches, or not calling a cab after that 3rd martini and getting caught. The kinda guilty kind implies indifference…not caring enough to follow through with responsibilities we took on. And the not guilty kind implies accidents, unavoidable circumstances, or instances when we’ve being misled. Like for example that time we ran over our spouse while backing out of the driveway…he was standing in the blind spot, right?

Ok, now that we’re clear on definitions, good luck figuring out all the nuances in specific instances. It seems we might need a team of attorneys to sort out the deal with our decisions in life, especially when we also have to account for cognitive biases, passive-aggressive tendencies and similar. So yeah, not surprising that we have a hard time figuring things out, and therefore either go into denial, or else throw ourselves in a mental and emotional jail when what we end up is not what we intended or desired.

So, let’s go back to the vase…there it is, shattered on the floor, and a thousand generations of ancestors are sending forth a psychic wave of disapproval from the great beyond. Now what? Obvious lesson to be learned in case we can immediately identify wrongdoing…do not place vase on corner of table while dogs are running through the house chasing the cats who will jump on tables! Obvious conclusion to draw in cases where identifying wrongdoing is not so obvious…should be more careful with family heirlooms in general. Good. Now what?

Let’s face it…regardless of accountability, we feel awful, and the darn vase remains shattered. There’s no putting it back together, and even if there is, great-great-grandma’s spirit knows crazy glue. Assigning blame, feeling sorry, apologizing to the spirits, punishing ourselves rightfully or else needlessly, and striving to be more careful in the future will not help restore the actual vase. And so we must deal with it somehow.

As you know, there is that famous option of “everything happens for a reason”. Yes, it can seem like a cop-out, and sometimes is used as one. But, stepping back from a situation and creating an empowering meaning is very useful. I’m not suggesting obsessing over what might the ultimate secret purpose of the gods, or going to the extreme of what I call “cheering at funerals”. I’m suggesting looking at a difficult and painful situation from different perspectives, and also focusing on a positive outcome that might be linked to the undesirable whatever–it- is we face. Of course the discomfort or pain will not be instantly erased, but our perspective creates our reality, remember? And remember the other cliché that suggests pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional? Well, it’s not entirely optional at first, but definitely optional in the long term.

Yes, it would have been nice to have and pass on that vase to the kids. But it broke. Perhaps the breaking of it serves as a wake-up call of some kind…an alert to relationship priorities? An awakening to the need for change? Maybe we’re overdue on taking the time to re-think something as basic as the daily schedule and priorities, or else the importance we give to possessions at the expense of people and experiences?

Finally, back to poor Othello. (Yes, I’m almost done, and you can go have a cookie!) He made a terrible mistake. To be technical and morbid, he didn’t throw away a pearl, he friggin pulverized it. I remember thinking a man like that has serious issues. I felt sorry and frightened that anyone should be so certain and take such drastic measures because of it. Seems to me that even when we are most certain in life, we must necessarily, and humbly, allow for some uncertainty, and understand we’re not infallible.

Aha, so this is an issue of pride! The lesson here then seems to be that when it comes to judging ourselves for our choices and decisions, it’s not a matter of being right or wrong, being accountable or not…but a matter of being humble…before AND after we choose/decide anything. Our mistakes and successes are ultimately very similar, are they not? There is uncertainty in both, and if we manage to put in the effort and live mindfully most of the time, chances are we’ll develop a sense of wellness and balance within ourselves that will prevent us from throwing pearls away in the first place, or obsessing over whether we did it on purpose, or denying we held a pearl and were too lazy to put it in a safe place!

Most importantly, no matter what happens in life, we’ll be in the habit of creating an empowering meaning, instead of falling backwards into that endless loop of trying to figure out to what extent we’re responsible, so that we can serve our pride by either rewarding it with established innocence, or else dramatic guilt. (Oopsie, I know this is uncomfortable…the idea that we gain something when we keep ourselves feeling guilty and miserable. But let’s not spoil the day and go there right now.)

In case this is not coming together for you…I’m merely using a confusion technique in coaching. And, I’m operating on a dose of decaf, so give me a break. Cliff-notes on this post: don’t overjudge the past, don’t dwell on broken things, create a positive meaning, don’t take yourself at your best or worst all that seriously (aka. Be humble!) and try to tread gently even when you’re in one of those “boldly going” phases. Unless of course you need to grab a bull by the horns, in which case wear armor.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Christian Bogomil says:

    Wear amour, or at very least a cape.

    It could be said of the author that “She that was ever fair and never proud, Had tongue at will, and yet was never loud.”

    But that would be only partly correct. For at times the voice is quite loud indeed…proclaiming …what? Ideas? Yes, certainly ideas. And her influence expands, as it should. We might listen, take what we can use today and allow that the rest may have value if but tomorrow.

    We should be GLAD that she is on occasion loud. And always read on for she leaves “no hinge nor loop to hang a doubt on”.


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