Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lathos Intolerance!

One of the first phrases I learned in the study of the contemporary Greek language is lipame – Greek short-hand for I am sorry! As a stumbling practitioner of modern Greek, I learned this word rather quickly and easily, because I constantly make mistakes. Another, related word I learned the easy way (or the hard way, depending on your point of view) is the Greek word, lathos, meaning mistake. Because I often make grammatical and linguistic blunders and occasionally also make cultural errors in this Greek setting, I am often required to say, Lipame! Lathos mou! - I am sorry! My mistake!

While Greek friends are usually willing to overlook my poor pronunciation, improper word endings and inappropriate usage of tenses, internally, I have a low level of tolerance for these linguistic miscues. Somewhere along the line, I must have accepted, without giving it much consideration, the notion that my language fluency should be perfect. Unless I intentionally decide to give myself the benefit of the doubt, cut myself some slack and lighten-up, I can be harsh toward myself in this regard. I find it somewhat ironic that I give myself so much critical grief due to a notion of perfection which I have apparently uncritically accepted into my own internal mentality.
This idea surfaced again recently, when I was telling my advanced English language conversation students not to be so hard on themselves. Speaking to these adult language learners who come to class after a hard day of underpaid, manual labor, I suggested that their first goal should not be the development of perfect fluency, but, instead, to come to understand the English language well and to make themselves understood by others. Recently, I was counseling a new arrival in the United States who, despite the fact that he already speaks several languages, is anxious about his somewhat limited fluency in the English vernacular. I reminded him that, even with his struggles with this new tongue, he is already perfectly able to make himself understood, even though in a less than perfect manner.

While some may deem this a low diving board approach to adult language learning, my sense is that it is a reasonable approach to the imperfections which we all demonstrate – especially when it comes to language usage. But, every time I speak this way to aspiring language learners, I can see the eyes begin to roll. In language learning, we all seem to have what the Greeks might refer to as lathos intolerance!
But, intolerance of our incompleteness is not restricted to language learning. Most of us are similarly biased against our limitations in many other areas of life. After decades of dealing with struggling university students who may or may not have been making the dean’s list, I can report that I spent more time counseling the high achievers who missed the A+ by a few points than I did with underachievers who could not make a 2.0 GPA! Virtually every stunningly attractive coed with whom I engaged in meaningful conversation over the years always felt that she was, in some respects ugly, no matter how many beauty contests and class beauty awards she had won. I have known astoundingly successful professional people whose curriculum vitae would have made anybody envious, but who often express the sorrow that they have not achieved well. I know folks whose moral record is stellar, but who can never forget or forgive themselves for a mistake made years ago.

I have a suspicion that this lathos intolerance, if you will allow me a less-than-perfect usage of both the English and the Greek languages, has been driven into our psyches from our earliest experiences in education, sports, religion and even our families by our elders who struggle with their own incompleteness;  but, I could be wrong on that! Regardless of its origin, I wonder how much potential benefit and growth you and I have bypassed by our failure (if I may use the word) to claim the learnings associated with our failures! When our mistakes only cause us embarrassment and self-depreciation and cannot be owned, mined or harvested for our benefit, we are short-changing ourselves of potential added value!
I am not here to celebrate mediocrity and am certain that all of us could and should do better in many aspects of our lives; but sometimes I need to be reminded that only God is perfect and I am not – nor was I ever, since the fall of mankind, intended to be! Indeed, if the Bible teaches us anything at all, it is that we have all “fallen short,” (Romans 3:23), every one of us has “missed the mark” (sin, hamartia in Greek – 1 John 3:4). What is more, although our God is a holy and righteous God, it is his loving, gracious willingness to accept us, despite our mistakes, that is the basis for any salvation which we have any chance of receiving – in this world or the next.

If you happen to disagree with my words here, you should feel free to write this up as my mistake and accept in advance my words: Lathos mou! Lipame!

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