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When we make a mistake

Honors Convocation
Augustana College 2019
Steve Bahls, President

On behalf of the faculty, staff and trustees of Augustana College, it's my pleasure, and indeed my honor, to congratulate you for your achievements at Augustana. We are so very proud of you.

And parents, congratulations to you. Honor students don't achieve their potential without considerable investment from their parents. As the parent of three honors students myself, I know first-hand how parents encourage their students. I know how many late nights you spent helping your students stay focused on homework during their middle school years. And how you worked so hard when your students were young to encourage them to be curious about the world around them and creative in their approach to life. You've been your students' cheerleader, mentor, and constructive critic. You've made it happen for your students.

And, parents, you've seen how others made it happen for your students, as well. Just as you engaged in your students' lives, others have too — in their schools, arts and athletic programs, and more. I am particularly proud of those colleagues here at Augustana who have made a real difference for your students — particularly our faculty. Faculty members have invested their time and efforts both in challenging your students and opening doors for them. Students, family and friends, may we take a moment to thank our faculty.

This is my 16th year at Augustana. Something I've observed over the course of those years is that our honors students demonstrate the three E's: they excel, they exceed, and they eclipse. You've excelled in your studies due to your hard work and determination. Your faculty have pushed you in ways that led you to exceed your own expectations of yourself. And when you go out into the world, your generation will change it for the better, eclipsing what any other generations have done. You have excelled, you are exceeding and you will eclipse.

During my 16 years at Augustana, I've worked with more than 10,000 students and graduates. And what a remarkable group! But I was taken aback when an honors graduate from several years ago told me that one important thing was missing from his education. This graduate told me that we taught our graduates to succeed, but didn't spend enough time teaching them how to fail. By this I think the graduate was saying that we did not prepare our students for those parts of their lives when they need to recover from mistakes.

We all make mistakes — some big, some small. And in many cases, organizations that we are responsible for make mistakes. Individual mistakes might include words that we would like to take back or actions in our personal lives that, in retrospect, were foolish. Many of you will be responsible for organizations that make mistakes. Perhaps you will be in charge of an organization that sold a defective product or you are responsible for a medical clinic that made an error.  

What do you do when you make a mistake, even if it is a big mistake? Sadly, some will be watching for you to stumble and will do all they can to exploit your errors.

Too often mistake paralyze us. Too often they prompt us to lose our resilience and withdraw from the world. 

So how do we best address mistakes? By remembering these three simple words: care, do, prevent.  Care. Do. Prevent.

First, you have to CARE about what's gone wrong, and show that you mean it. A part of caring is an apology — not an anonymous apology, but a real apology showing you assume responsibility. And not a half-baked apology like "I am sorry if I hurt anyone.' But a real apology: "I know I hurt you and it is understandable that you were hurt."

Second, DO something to make it right. Meet with the person you wronged. Fix the defective product your business sold. Offer to make amends for the damage you caused. Seek restorative justice by extending acts of kindness above and beyond what is expected. Graciously accepting the consequences of your mistakes is critical to this process.

Third, PREVENT. This requires introspection. What will you do to avoid the problem in the future? What will you do to rebalance your life or your attitudes to help ensure the harmful speech or conduct will not happen again? If an injury is caused by an organization you are part of, how will you determine the root cause of what happened an improve systems to prevent it?

Care-do-prevent does not mean there are not consequences for mistakes. Care-do-prevent sets us on the path of restorative justice and healed relationships. Care-do-prevent means we've learned from our mistakes. And when we learn from our mistakes, we are stronger than before.

And finally, as you move through the steps of Care-do-prevent, make sure that you forgive yourself. You may be bruised by your mistake, but your mistake does not define you. And resist the temptation to become jaded if you think peoples' reactions to your mistake are too severe. Get your emotions under control and focus on Care-do-prevent.

Now what if you are on the other side of the table? What if someone has done something that offends or wrongs you. There is a lot of discussion today whether it is most appropriate to punish or to forgive. I think there might be some insight from the prophet Micah who said: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." Justice often requires punishment. But mercy requires forgiveness. Which should do we do? Sometimes we chose one or the other and sometimes we choose both. What is often overlooked, however, in the triple advice to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly — is humility. Humility, I submit, is balancing between justice and mercy by putting yourself in the shoes of the person who committed the wrong. After all, we all make mistakes and will one day be in the shoes of those who do. 

Here is how I try to approach someone else's mistake, particularly when I work to understand that I could be in the other person's shoes, if it weren't for the grace of God and the privileges and advantages I've enjoyed. Here is what I ask myself when thinking about how to respond to someone who has aggrieved me:

First, I am one who believes in the power of sincerity. If someone has approached their mistake with a genuine Care-do-prevent approach, I am far more likely to forgive them. The question in my mind is often: Did the person learn from their mistakes?

Second, when wronged, I ask whether my response is proportionate. Not all wrongs are equal. Was the wrong a temporary lapse by an otherwise good person? Was the wrong a long time ago and the person has shown responsible conduct since then? I'm much quicker to forget and move on in these cases.

Third, I always need to remind myself that no one should be judged by the worst moment of their lives. Let's judge people by the whole of who they are.

Students, sometimes your ability to learn from mistakes and respond to failure is as important as your determination to pursue excellence. And your ability to forgive makes you a stronger person than before. Relationships that have been broken and restored are often the strongest relationships.

So remember, pursue excellence and hold yourself to high standards. You have shown you do that through your academic achievement. But know that part of excellence is rebounding from disappointments and addressing your mistakes.

Congratulations, honors students. We are proud of you.