I was 17 years old when "the Monica Lewinsky scandal" broke. Like most of the world, I drew conclusions based on the storylines the media was spinning day after day. Social media didn't exist back then, but wherever you turned (newspapers, magazines, late-night television), Monica was the topic of conversation. (Note: we're all trained to politely call it "conversation," but if we're being honest, it was plain ol' gossip.) When I say the name "Monica Lewinsky," you probably have a certain storyline you default to. I did, too, at least until last week when the Jewish Federation of Columbus invited me to attend an event at which Monica was the guest speaker. Turns out, that storyline we've all grown familiar with is probably the least interesting thing about her.
Some things you might not know about Monica: She has a great sense of humor. She's a talented storyteller (and even brought the audience to tears). And she's using what is arguably one of the most difficult experiences any person has endured as a catalyst to do good -- fighting cyberbullying.
I've never fully believed in the notion of mistakes. I believe in accidents and I believe in choices. Most of the things we label "mistakes" fall into the latter category; choices in which the outcome wasn't what we intended or actions that had unexpected ramifications. I've never liked the word "mistake" because it suggests some sort of hashmark on our permanent life record. And despite the fact that we all make questionable choices at some point or another, labeling them mistakes gives those things more power than they deserve. It gives us permission to define each other based on past history rather than we are today.
I was 17 years old when Monica Lewinsky became a household name. She was in her early 20s. Through the eyes of a 17-year-old, twenty-something seemed so adult. Looking back at everything as a now-34-year-old, I have a whole new perspective. As I listened to Monica speak last week, I tried to imagine what my life would have been like had my 22-something choices and actions been plastered across newspapers and television sets, paraded out onto an international stage. I found myself thinking about how exhausting it must feel to spend a lifetime running from a past you know you'll probably never fully escape.
When you find yourself sitting a few feet away from someone whose intimate history you know better than that of your closest friends, it changes things. In that moment of vulnerability, you stop seeing them as a punchline and a headline and start seeing them as a person just like you. When you get to know the human -- rather than the spin -- the storyline we've all been fed suddenly loses its flavor. You find that you're just two flawed people trying to do something and be someone and maybe make the world a slightly better place. And there, in a hotel conference room on a random Thursday night, your choices of your past no longer hold up. Because the only thing that really matters is who you are right here, right now.
I'd argue there are no such things as mistakes. There are choices and outcomes. Some good, some bad. I'd argue it's the choices we might do differently, if given the chance, that are our unlikeliest of teachers. They change us for the better. They challenge us to define our character, to sharpen our steel, to grow, to learn, to forge onward, to take action. They call for us to stand up, stand for something and take a stand. But most of all, they teach us how to forgive ourselves, move on and do better.