Society loves to keep track of all the “firsts.” From the first person to take a road-trip in a private car to the first person to tightrope across Niagra falls – they’ll be recorded in history forever because they were first.
But while everyone celebrates those who accomplish firsts, I’ve got my own heroes – those who came 2nd. Everybody loves Neil Armstrong. But me, I’m for Buzz Aldrin. Now there’s a guy I can cheer for.
I imagine the lunar lander touching down, Neil and Buzz race each other for the chance to be first out the door. They waddle like two clumsy mummies in their spacesuit. Buzz begins to sweat as fears enter his mind:
What if I take the first step and then trip over my giant moon boots? I’d be the first person to trip on the moon. What if I forget the punchline to my moon landing joke I’ve been working on all week?
He hangs back a bit, fiddling with a lever, and calls out,
“Hey Neil, this uhh….altitude adjuster lever thing….it’s loose again. You know what, you go on. I’m ten steps behind you…or should I say ‘one giant leap?’ Hahaha! Ooops, I hope I didn’t steal your thunder there. Get going. I’ll catch up with you in one space minute.”
Buzz breaths a sigh of relief. Disaster averted. He can now safely observe what Neil does and avoid any rookie blunders when it’s his turn.
It’s risky being first. I prefer to be second – receiving the benefits of being almost first but without all the pressure. It gives me a chance to observe what the first person did right or wrong and avoid all the embarrassment and other difficult emotions.
A Day on the Titanic
A few months ago, I broke character by choosing to be first at something. I’ll never forget the fateful day I boarded the Titanic. “What could go wrong,” you say? “It’s an unsinkable ship!”
My parents and my wife and I gave our tickets to the crew member and stepped aboard the Titanic replica and museum in Pigeon Forge, TN. Measuring ½ the size of the real Titanic and containing $4 million in artifacts taken from the sunken tomb, it was an interesting way to learn about the fateful voyage. After the “captain” gave us a tour of the helm, he encouraged the tour group to walk out the door to the “deck,” reach over the “bow,” and put our hands in the 28-degree “ocean.” The exhibit gave people an idea of what it might feel like to jump into an iceberg-filled ocean as many of the passengers had done in 1912.
I was near the front of the tour group as the Captain opened the door to a dark and mysterious room and motioned us forward. Nobody moved. The Captain looked at me and beckoned me through the door. I looked down, suddenly finding my museum map very interesting. I glanced up. Still nobody had moved. We were all waiting for Neil Armstrong it seemed. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I really wanted to feel how cold the water was. I rushed through the door and entered the almost pitch-black deck of the ship, barely lit up by the night sky of LED stars embedded in the walls.
Before my eyes could adjust to the darkness, I soon became disoriented. Where was I supposed to go, again? What was I supposed to do? I could feel the group behind me, waiting for my lead. I’m a Buzz not a Neil!, I thought in a panic. I stumbled forward until my feet hit a wall. This must be the bow of the ship, I guessed. I could see water reflecting off the back wall. I figured there must be a trench filled with water behind the wall. I reached my arm over the wall and down into where I thought the water would be. I didn’t feel anything.
The group was filling in around me. They reached over the wall and seemed to find the water. The room began to echo with “brrr”s and “eeeek”s and “ahhhhh so cold!!”s. I still couldn’t feel anything. I rolled up my sleeve, got on my tiptoes and reached way over the wall…further, further….there! I felt the water! Except, it didn’t seem that cold to me. I wondered if I needed to put my hands in deeper. The water near the surface was probably warmed by the air temperature of the room. I stuck my hand further in so even my arm was submerged. It was cool but I wouldn’t say it was cold. It definitely wasn’t painful. Maybe Leonardo Dicaprio had a low pain tolerance or something. It made me really dislike Rose even more for letting him drown.
Somebody from the group nearby said, “Excuse me.” I turned to see a few people waiting in line behind me and looking at me with odd expressions. Be my guest, I thought as I moved out of the way to let them have a turn. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was about the “cold” water. A man walked up to where I was previously standing, grabbed a paper towel from a dispenser I didn’t see before, dried off his hands, and threw it over the wall I had been leaning against. Except, it wasn’t a wall.
My eyes, having now adjusted to the darkened room, finally saw what happened. The wall and the “ocean” trough ran for forty feet or more around the room. But I never made it to the wall. I had somehow walked right into a trash can, the only obstruction in the entire room which blocked me from reaching the wall.
For the past minute I had been sliding my hand and a good portion of my arm deeper and deeper into a pile of sopping wet, slightly cool paper towels residing in a trash can.
Well that was embarrassing, I thought. Also, I have a strong urge to sanitize my arm. I sidestepped the trash can and walked up to the real wall and found the water in a trough. I can’t remember what the water felt liked. Probably cold I’m guessing.
But what I remember, what stuck with me, is how different I felt when I allowed myself to be imperfect and unprepared. The anxiety before I walked in, the bravery of taking a risk, the confusion of entering a dark room, the embarrassment of realizing my mistake, and the laughter that came from telling the story later. There was a richness to the experience for me, more so than when I aim for robotic perfection.
I wonder about mistakes. Are they meant to be avoided? Do they happen just so we can learn how to do things better next time? Or is there an opportunity when mistakes are made to experience life to its fullest?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if I’m first or twenty-first, it’s only human to make mistakes. I find myself looking differently than before at people who trip on the sidewalk or drive down the freeway with their gas-tank door ajar. I feel a special kinship with them. I remember what that feels like. Maybe that’s what mistakes are all about: an opportunity to embrace our humanity and remember that we’re all in this together.
And if I’m less worried about making a mistake, who knows what exciting adventures I might find myself participating in?