Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #111 The Grace of F-ing Up
About this episode

In this Gathering Room, Martha discusses the insights and breakthroughs that can only come when we surrender to the fact that we’ve F-ed up. Listen in and find out how!


Martha Beck:

Today, I hope you’re excited to hear about the joys, the grace, in effing up. I have searched my soul this day to find the grace of effing up because I have been effing up so very much. For example, I was supposed to tell you right before I started talking that The Gathering Room is also an audio podcast called The Gathering Pod available on podcast platforms. I didn’t even know that was happening. People did it for me and it was amazing. Thank you. So, yeah, I screwed that one up and I’ve been screwing up everything, and that’s really not much different from the other times that we’ve been doing The Gathering Room. It’s just really up for me today because we’ve had a kind of stress on the household. We’ve had a family member sick and somebody had to leave. And we run a tight ship around here and when someone’s missing, we have to work double speed and I just can’t do anything right this week.

Every little thing I had to write for work, I had to write over. Not just that I didn’t do a good job, I forgot and wrote on the wrong topic and did it twice before I remembered the topic. I forgot important appointments. I didn’t even set up some of the important appointments. I broke one of the dogs. Lord knows, she can’t even use one back foot. I don’t even know it. And I’ve also continued, in case you’ve been listening to these in order, to try my hand at a little watercolor painting. And for me, this is such an obsession and it’s so dumb for me to be obsessed with this because I’m not a professional artist. I don’t know what dumb is. I probably screwed up just saying that. But here’s the thing. I’ve been working so hard to get certain effects in watercolor, and I work and work and I mess them up and I mess them up.

And then I watch tutorials online. And last night I watched a tutorial online and I thought, “I can do that. I can do that.” This guy, he’s this brilliant architectural illustrator, but he does these amazing landscapes. And I was like, “Okay, this is how he does it. I know exactly how he does it.” And all night when I slept, what little sleep I got, I dreamed about doing exactly this technique. By 4:00 in the morning I was like, “I can do this. I can do this.” Made myself stay in bed till 5:00 thinking maybe I could sleep. Then I went down and I said, “I’m so sure I can do this right I’m going to actually set a stopwatch because if I don’t knock this out in five minutes, I don’t even know what’s happening.”

Five hours later I decided… I mean, I screwed up the first one so bad. And you have to do the whole drawing first. So, you have this very detailed drawing and then you put paint on the paper and if you mess up, it’s all messed up. Well, I messed up with the first brush stroke and then I thought, “I’ll just try. Okay, it’s messed up now. It’s effed up now. I’m just going to keep painting.” So, I did paint and paint and paint to see if I can do it. I thought, “When I was doing martial arts, my sensei used to have us do every move a thousand times slowly and then a thousand times with more speed and then a thousand times with more power.” And that was the process by which you had to get it into your body. And I thought, “I’m going to do a thousand bad first washes.”

That’s the thing. If you do watercolor landscapes or cityscapes, you do something called a first wash, which is just like, I don’t know, it’s like speaking another language consisting only of diphthongs pronounced backwards. It’s a difficult thing. Sorry, I’ve been up a lot today. Anyway, I thought about… And I’m just doing dozens of these things. I just got up all these little pieces of paper and I’m doing the first wash, “Oh, that’s effed up.” Doing the second one, “That’s effec up.” Same thing over and over and over and over and over. No two alike, all effed up. And then I realized that in agreeing to go forward, even though it was all effed up, I had released myself to start discovering things that I didn’t know were things. I never cracked the puzzle.

I never got a first wash that looked good to me, but I started finding things that happened with the brush and with my body and I could feel them going into my body and I thought, “This state of grace that comes over you once you say, ‘It’s all effed up,’ that actually is where a lot of the most beautiful self-discovery and mastery of life comes from.” And I started thinking about all the people, like maximum performance. People who study maximum performance in sports have found that people get maximum performance when they have worked really, really hard to get good at something and then they decide something’s gone wrong so it’s just all effed up, so they’re just going to go out and participate and get their plaque for participating. And a lot of major world records have been set by people.

I remember one athlete in this study who’d set a world record in the Olympics in track and field. He trained and trained and trained, but on the day of the event he was sick. And so he was like, “Okay. Well, I’m out of the top prizes. I’m not going to get a medal, so I’m going to have a cheeseburger.” He had a big cheeseburger and a milkshake, which is not what you’re supposed to do right before you run an Olympic race. At least this guy wasn’t. But he was so relaxed. He was just like, “I’m going to have a cheeseburger. I’m going to have a milkshake.” And he went out there and he said, “I’ll just participate.” And he set a world record, and he’d never even been close to the world record before. And he was completely astonished because it had felt so easy to him, and it was because deciding that everything’s effed up allows us to relax.

I’ve seen the same thing in public speaking, certainly the same thing in writing. Have you ever tried to write beautifully and it’s just all labored and stiff, and then you just start joking on the page and suddenly your writing has some energy to it? If you’re a writer, you will know what I mean. I’ve seen it with marriages and relationships, people who are working on their marriage and then they decide, “This is too effed up. Let’s get a divorce.” So, they’re like, “Oh, thank God we’re not married anymore.” And they start actually enjoying each other and then they’re like, “Oh, maybe we should stay married. Let’s work on this,”. And it gets all effed up again. It’s in the saying, “I’m not even going to try,” that they find a space to be happy with each other. I see this a lot with people who quit their jobs. They’re like, “Oh, I thought I liked doing this, but I just hate my job and it’s all effed up,” and then they decide to quit and suddenly they’re telling everyone at work the truth.

They’re relaxed. Their work is flowing better. Everybody’s starting to like them and they’re thinking, so many people have told me, “I don’t want to quit now. Now that everything is completely scuttled, I’m starting to enjoy the job again like I used to.” So, I was pondering this as I did one bad first wash after another. And believe me, these are really bad. And I thought about how in the military, at least the US military, they have two beautiful, beautiful acronyms. The military can come up with an acronym, can’t it? It’s just beautiful. And the first one is SNAFU. Have you ever heard the word SNAFU, S-N-A-F-U? It means situation normal, all effed up, except they don’t just say the F. So, a SNAFU is when things are going the way they usually go. Then there’s another phrase, FUBAR, F-U-B-A-R, which means effed up beyond all recognition. So, the reason I love this so much is that there’s no acronym for the time when everything’s running smoothly and everybody’s doing everything right, because that time does not exist in a human life.

And if it did, it would be so, so boring. I could actually, I used to do it, take a photograph and reproduce that photograph in paint so exactly that it would look as if you had printed the photograph on a canvas. I can do that. It’s boring as hell. Who cares? Get a camera to do it. The joy of having a human paint a picture is that things are going to go SNAFU, and it’s in the SNAFUs that you get little things that cameras don’t do, little things that don’t have a machine-like precision. Even though you may be going for a machine-like precision, you really can’t. Then when things are effed up beyond all recognition, there can be a time in that, it’s like the maximum performance thing or the end of the marriage, the end of the job, in the middle of things being effed up beyond all recognition, you find things in there that you never knew to look for, and it’s because you no longer recognize the situation.

You don’t even have your bearings. A friend of mine, Susan Casey, just wrote the most incredible book, the name of which I’ve forgotten. It’s not out yet. It’s about the deep sea. It’s freaking phenomenal. And she talks about how in the deep sea, she goes down in submersibles and stuff to write about the deep sea, and she says, “In the deep sea you lose your bearings and find yourself.” Because everything’s dark and everything’s unfamiliar. When things are effed up beyond all recognition, you lose your bearings and find yourself because right into that space where you let go comes grace. And I was telling Roe earlier, out of the eight hours I spent painting today, I had maybe six or seven minutes where I stumbled into something new, something that was beautiful even if it was in the middle of a total mess.

And in that moment, I don’t know what heroin makes people feel, but they talk about this intense euphoria. I don’t know what enlightenment is like, but the wise ones tell us that the self dissolves and there’s just this awe and bliss. There I was sitting at the kitchen table effing up painting after painting, and for six or seven minutes out of eight hours, I felt that thing, the magic. And here is why it is good to do things that are too hard for us. Speaking of Roe, she put on her Substack this week, if you follow it you may have read this, she stuck a meme in from the internet and it’s a play on John F. Kennedy’s statement in his famous speech about putting men on the moon and doing everything. He said, “We do not do these things because they are easy. We do them because they are hard.” And Roe put up a meme that said, “We do not do these things because they are easy. We do them because we thought they would be easy.”

And that’s why we get married and that’s why we parent and that’s why we have jobs and that’s everything we do, we do because some… We’re waking up at 4:00 in the morning going, “I can do that in five minutes. I’m going to set a stopwatch.” And then there’s the horror of realizing how incapable of perfection we really are. And then if we persist, even though we thought it would be easy and it’s really, really not, if we give into our own fallibility, that is the aperture through which something brand new can come, something that no camera has ever put on any page, a word, a poem that you wrote that nobody else could have written. There are a million ways in which FUBAR can take us to a new level of things being really sublime. I’m not sure the military has that. Situation weird, everything really sublime.

What’s the acronym for that? So, yeah, whatever you’re doing right now today, this week, whenever, if things go wrong and the dog is broken and everything, just think SNAFU. It is normal for things to be all effed up. That means you’re alive. And if they get truly FUBAR, like our situation with a family member being really ill, that will grind you down and beat you up and break you, and hand you pieces of grace that are the reason you came to the planet. I’m always talking about the reason we came to the planet. It’s like going into a deep, dark mine for the jewels that we can take away. And I think those are the jewels we take away. When things are SNAFU, but especially when things are FUBAR, that’s when the moments of grace come in. So, that’s what I have to say about the grace in being all effed up.

And now I’m going to go to the questions. Thanks for sending these in, folks, and thanks to Roe for forwarding to them… them to me. See, I effed up. Anne says, “I find that the fear of the SNAFUs can paralyze me and make stop trying and doing anything. How can I get past this and let myself past this point?” Here’s the thing. This is a terrible thing for me to say, but there’s a typo in the question, and it’s fine. It’s okay. You sent me a question and you left out the word me. “I find that the fear of SNAFUs can paralyze me and make stop trying and doing anything.” I can fill in the word me. I know what you mean. And that’s the worst that’s going to happen in most situations is it just somebody will go, “Oh, you left out a word.” And you go, “Oh. Situation normal, all effed up.”

Once you get to the point where you really, really realize that effed up is normal, and it sure is for me, then it’s like, “Oh, of course I made that mistake and that mistake and that mistake. Of course everything has to be edited and re-edited. Of course I’m going to have to start over a million times.” Then it’s like you’re still tired about it sometimes, but you’re not as scared. Because you’ve already capitulated to the idea that you’re going to fail. As Ramdha said once about being in enlightened, he said, “People spend all this time going, ‘Am I am enlightened? How do I get enlightened?'” He said, “Let’s just look at this question. Will I be enlightened in this lifetime? No. There, now you can relax.” He’s like, “And then go become a better person.” Once you give up on perfection, movement returns and you can start and it’s not stiff and sticky.

Do you remember the Olympics that Tara Lipinski won the gold for women’s figure skating and there was a Chinese American skater, I can’t remember what her name was, but Michelle something, but she was pegged to win? Oh my god, she was so, so good. She’d won all the world championships and everything and she gave a great performance. It was amazing. It was a little stiff. She was so tense. Then Tara Lipinski, who was 15, went out there and had nothing to lose and just had a blast. So loose, so relaxed, it was magic. And no one pegged her to win. But it was that “Ah, right. This is no way it’s going to be perfect. So, I’m just going to have fun.” Boom. Go watch Tara Lipinski’s final skate from that Olympics if you want to see what it’s like to let go of the fear. And if you can’t let go of the fear, just go forward in fear, eff up, and then you find out you’re still okay.

That’s kind of how it always works. I’ve never met anybody who went out and got over their fear and then never effed up ever, ever. Okay. Nancy says, “It is a very rough time of my life.” Oh, honey. Yeah. It’ll be a very rough time in my life really soon. It’s not today. Today’s good. For everybody in this Gathering Room, there are going to be times when it’s very, very rough. And we can all admire each other for going through the rough times even when they’re FUBAR. Oh, I effed up, you guys. I have not been on the right document. Okay. Gina says, “If you feel so FUBAR that you just give up, will that help that moment of grace to arise?” Sometimes it really does, and sometimes it’s when you keep going. Because I had a tendency to throw away paintings, for example. And one of the things I told myself is, “I’m going to do entire paintings.”

They’re small. I make small ones so I can do them fast. And when I just made a mistake and then threw something away, I never pushed enough to learn. So, it’s by continuing when things are already broken that I’ve learned the most. I think I’ve told you this story a million times about how I had this horrible fear of speaking in public. I mean, really paralyzing. And then in high school I had a crush on a guy who was on the debate team and I figured out that if I decided to do some kind of competitive speaking, I could go to the debate meets and maybe be on the bus when he was there.

So, I went to a speech meet, went into my first round of extemporaneous speaking and fainted dead away. Boom, out there on the floor. Count of 10. And I remember looking up and the judge was standing there going, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “Yeah.” He said, “Do you want to just leave?” And I was like, “No, I’m going to finish my speech.” I mean, might as well. The fact that I finished the speech probably is the reason I’m talking to you now. Because I used the opportunity of FUBAR to keep going a little bit more, but I was completely relaxed about it. And I lost my fear of public speaking in that one experience. Not completely. I still get nervous, but the paralysis was totally gone. Because I realized the worst that can happen is I become unconscious in front of people who are judging me.

That’s not the worst thing. If that’s the worst thing that happened to me that day, I have a pretty good life. So, yeah, give up, take a rest and then try it again if it matters to you, if you love it. If you love it so much that even though it’s FUBAR, you want to go back. The way you do with your kids. It’s the whole thing of a relationship where you don’t want to do anything wrong, but you will. And I love Dr. Becky Kennedy who says, “In parenting, it’s not perfection. It’s rupture and repair that makes a good relationship.” You’ll do things that hurt your kids’ feelings. You’ll do things wrong and it will rupture the relationship. And that’s an opportunity to go back in and say, “Oh, okay. I wasn’t listening to you. I hurt your feelings,” or whatever it was. “Give me your perspective. I’m really here now.” And it’s the rupture and repair process that teaches people to trust. So, if we can do that with our children, that’s really, really powerful.

And if we can do it with anything, anything we love enough to go back to when it’s FUBAR, you’ll learn from the times you eff up. And everything you don’t love enough to go back to when it’s FUBAR, just don’t go back. I think basically you should just do the things that are so important to you that if it gets effed up beyond all recognition, you will still want to get the result you’re after. So, Bianca says, “Does this apply to only situations we are passionate about? How do we know when it’s time to let someone else do it or give up completely?” I think when you’re tired and uninspired, I was going to say, but that time comes. I mean, I would probably put myself in some kind of physiological state of emergency if I didn’t get tired when I was doing something that matters to me. I wrote the second half of Expecting Adam, my first memoir, in one sitting, 72 hours. I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited.

So, I guess I was passionate about that. Here’s the thing. Here’s the thing, folks. I don’t think it’s what we call passion that’s really at work here. I think it’s spirit. I think that when something has… Passion has, in English, it blends with the passion of sexual love, Eros, which is definitely… There is a Venn diagram overlap with everything you love and a kind of erotic draw toward it, a magnetism. But it’s when you’re called by the spirit, it’s when you’re pulled by your soul, that you absolutely keep going no matter how many times you eff up. And so that’s why there’s grace in it. Because if you keep going, you leave passion behind and you get into complete communion with the divine, which goes beyond mere passion. And those are the things… I think, keep trying things.

And if you eff up and eff up and you think, “Oh, I’m done with this,” and you throw it down and you stomp away, and then you see somebody else doing it and you’re like, “Hmm, I bet I could do that,” and you feel that, “I can’t sleep now because I want to try that,” that’s a piece of your soul. And to me it’s better than the typical passion that we generally talk about. So, give up unless you feel that. Give up. Give up as many times as you want. If it pulls you back in to the FUBAR and says, “Try again,” that’s probably your soul speaking. And again, those are the jewels we’re here to collect. Okay. The Robin Zine says, “When you struggle artistically, how do you know,” I think, “that it means it’s time to push through a FUBAR bar or a time to take a walk?”

You don’t. You never know. So, you push and then you walk and then you try and then you fail. And then you take the dog for a walk and the dog gets broken, and then maybe you quit walking that particular dog because that dog gets broken a lot. Sorry. I diverge because of my ADD. I really think that we’re all muddling through everything. Who are we to know when it’s time to walk away and when it’s time to push the envelope in anything, in a relationship, in a mastery of a skill, whatever? Nobody can tell you. It’s all by trial and error. I always tell people, “It’s like people trying to make fire in the forest when we need fire to survive.” When is it time to walk away? Well, never really. When is it time to take a rest? When you’re exhausted. How do you know you’re doing it right? You make fire. How long does it take? I don’t know. It takes different people different amounts of time. If you have a teacher, it goes faster. But everything is like this. Make no mistake, there’s no roadmap for anybody.

We’re all just sort of wandering around. Even if we’re following the rules, we’re doing it because we think that will be easy. And guess what? It turns out not to be that easy. And so then we stumble around some more. And then when things get really FUBAR and grace comes in, now we know to go back to the moment of grace, the time when it’s not SNAFU even. It’s beautiful. So, Sheeby says, “How do we listen to our intuition in a SNAFU?” I think the best thing is humor. I think that when the situation is normal, all effed up, the very fact that the military, that they talk to each other that way, it’s dark laughter. There is evidence that shows that people who survive difficult situations like plane crashes in the mountains and stuff, you’re more likely to survive if you can laugh at things being FUBAR or SNAFU. If you can just do your 900th bad first wash or the 95th time you misgender someone you dearly love who just wants your respect.

It’s when you have SNAFUed so much that you just want to beat your head against a wall and you can laugh at it, that’s your soul lightening up. That’s the way the grace comes in often, very often. And I think that’s what the intuition is. It’s going toward humor. It’s the right side of the brain taking us to something, a new way of looking at it. Kristen says, “The Bewildered podcast about vulnerability hangovers helped me so much.” Oh, that’s so good. Roe and I do this Bewildered podcast, and Kristen listened to it. Thank you very much. She says, “I often think being vulnerable at the wrong times or with the wrong people is effing up, but maybe that’s not true.” I don’t think it is true. I think that if you are telling the truth and you are saying what you want to say, even if people have a bad reaction and you feel embarrassed, that’s on them.

That’s not on you. If you said something that was true, kind and necessary from your perspective, it doesn’t matter what other people think. How they react is going to be SNAFU, and sometimes it’s going to be FUBAR. That’s part of the reason you can’t do anything perfectly, because it involves other people and we’re all imperfect. So, we’re all SNAFUing and FUBARing all the time. So, you just stay in your integrity, follow your own intuition, make your own eff-ups, and then forgive yourself and other people for theirs. And vulnerability is part of that process. It’s a powerful, powerful gift. So, Deborah says, “Is there a difference between FUBAR and saying, “Eff it,” which feels like quitting?” I think that’s just an expostulation of rage, which I feel a lot and I think it’s okay to say. When I did my little drawing with the stopwatch and then the first stroke was a total mess, I was like…

I used some strong language. I did. But then I got pulled back. Let yourself have the anger. Let yourself have the frustration. Let yourself have the argument. I watch my little two-year-old. She’s frustrated all the time and she always comes back to learn what she needs to learn. It’s kind of amazing. Steven says, “I love this concept, but for this to really work well don’t we all have to be in agreement that we’re going to accept the imperfect. For example, the article topic would suddenly have to change to what you ultimately wrote about rather than what they asked for.”

I think that it doesn’t matter what everyone agrees to. If we in ourselves, if you Steven decide that it’s okay for things to be SNAFU and occasionally FUBAR, then the fact that other people might not agree with you is just part of the SNAFU situation. And let me tell you, in this world, part of the SNAFU is always that people misunderstand each other. So, again, I’m not sure about the article thing, but I do think that instead of demanding that we go towards some preexisting definition of what we were meant to do, that if we bash away doing what we think is right, we eventually come through the very process of accumulating mistakes to the grace that goes beyond what we even knew we could achieve if we had created perfection according to our previous definition. Does that make any sense?

You think you’re going to make something perfect. You fail to make that perfect. You eff it all up. And if you keep going back when your soul calls you, and if you’re funny about it and if you let yourself use strong language and you let other people misunderstand, you break through into something that you did not know. And it wasn’t the perfection you thought you knew that was the real destination all along, it was the brand new insight, the grace that comes when things are all effed up. So, let us go forward into the week and eff everything up and that will be completely normal. And I love you all very much. Thank you for joining me on The Gathering Room and on The Gathering Pod. See you soon.

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