Mistake Vs Tragedy
Fair warning, I’m getting into stoic philosophy a bit here. If you’re not into the stoic perspective, I recommend looking up research on growth vs static mindset. Same junk different name 😋
Tragedy is severe an unwarranted injustice where nobody is at fault. The circumstances of nature happen to come together in a way that something awful happens and it’s pointless.
I was playing a video game the other day and started reflecting on the several mistakes I made - mostly around optimizing for time/resources. The thought is, if I had more information, awareness, reaction time, etc. I would have taken a different action.
I started thinking, what’s the difference between a tragedy and a mistake?
Stoic philosophy often points towards determinism, that is, we cannot change the past and given the trajectory of the universe we also cannot alter the future. We can learn from the past and adjust our actions and all of this is predictable. The question I often get when talking to others about this is, “so what? How does this change anything about how I live”. This is a great question for any philosophical line of thinking.
In the case of determinism, the hurdle of understanding its truth is just the start, and most people have trouble getting past that. But humor me for a moment and assume determinism is true. This assumption sets us down an interesting path chain of logic!
Let’s look at a common occurrence when a player makes a mistake in a video game: the other players blame them for losing the game, the player may hit their keyboard and blame the speed of their computer, everyone feels awful.
None of this makes sense from a lens of determinism. Instead, we can think deeply about all the factors that led up to the moment of that mistake with the knowledge that it was inevitable given the situation. We stop thinking in terms of agency and start thinking in systems!
Regret, guilt, and blame do not exist in this worldview, there is no place for them, instead we get technical, creative, and curious.
What if the computer was a factor? How could I test that? How can I most accurately re-create the situation in a simulator to adjust and try different things to optimize the outcome next time it happens? Maybe I can even get an AI to do that work for me!
I’ve been in 12 severe car accidents, I know that’s a lot, but I swear I’m a good driver. One particularly bad accident involved getting t-boned by a large truck completely smashing my car.
This left me quite shaken up and I spent the entire night re-living the few hours before the accident: “if only I hadn’t forgot my wallet and gone back in the house”, “if only I hadn’t taken extra time in the shower”, “if I had taken a different route to work”, on and on and on and on. So many events led to us both being in that exact time and place and boom!
I felt so powerless in that moment: the accident had taken place and there’s nothing I could do to change that fact. This was a key turning point and realization for me. Stoicism takes this feeling of powerlessness and normalizes it applying the idea broadly to all events. Yes you’re powerless, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s better to understand this true nature so you can get past the mental anguish that would arise otherwise.
There is a key moment where it’s critical to catch yourself, reflect, and practice making mental adjustments by thinking through the deterministic worldview. The key moment to look for is just when you realize you’ve made a mistake. Take a moment to check what’s going on in your body and mind. What is your natural thought process? How do you feel? Does your heart rate go up, maybe tightness in the chest or lump in the throat, maybe a sinking feeling?
With practice you can replace the typical default bad feelings of regret, loss, and guilt with immediate curiosity: “huh, I wonder why that happened”. Remove your self from the equation by default and you’ll quickly find yourself chuckling on the inside by others’ reactions.