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Mistakes Can Make the Perfect Gift

December 14th, 2012 by dk

Gifts don’t much interest me, but gifting definitely does. Gifts simultaneously express generosity and want, revealing some part of the giver and their perception of the recipient.

This noon, the City Club of Eugene will be hosting their annual Holiday Gifts program. The premise of the program is simple. The club asks a dozen people what they would give this community and why, striving to gather a group with nothing common between them except a generous spirit and a love for this community.

We’re a town whose bumper insists that we “Celebrate Diversity,” except we don’t. We gather in clusters of like-mindedness, often grousing about how none of the other clusters understand us. Our habits trump our aspirations most of the time.

City Club has staged this pageant of multiplicity every December since the mid-1990s, so it qualifies as “venerable” in a college town with a short memory. Hundreds of gifts have been proffered.

ShelterCare Executive Director Susan Ban wanted to give the community a midlife crisis. On the other side of that emotional reckoning, we’d be better equipped to separate the issues that matter to us from those that don’t. University of Oregon administrator Dan Williams offered as less patient remedy to the same malady. He suggested Prozac be added to the water supply.

Williams also deftly acknowledged his place in the parade, likening his situation to Zsa Zsa Gabor’s seventh husband on their wedding night: “I know what I have to do. I’m just not sure I can make it interesting.”

Gifting acknowledges two truths that we may not openly admit. First, we believe the world could be better. Second, we can actively contribute that improvement. Instead of fleeing the responsibility attached to each, a gift exposes that fear as the niggling nonsense that it is. Of course we can make a small difference — just open it.

The best gifts are the ones we already have, but we don’t know it. Oprah Winfrey knows how to heighten drama, so when she gave every audience member a new car, the keys were found under each seat. They had access to their new car throughout the show. They just didn’t know it.

I can’t give every reader a new car, but I can offer you something you already have. I wish for our residents the ability, freedom and privilege to be wrong.

“Democracy,” in the words of theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, offers the best “method for finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.” Solutions that are approximately right (i.e. wrong), when combined with open inquiry and a free society, move things forward in meaningful ways.

We don’t accept this freedom easily. We strive instead for perfect solutions. Mistakes can be powerfully liberating when we’re open enough to allow others to correct or improve our best attempts. After deliberating endlessly, is it any wonder we don’t feel liberated?

Most are not as lucky as us. Many in the world tonight will try to determine whether the water they’re drinking will make them sick, or whether they’ve foraged enough sticks before dark to keep their family warm until morning. Mistakes may result in death.

Our mistakes are much less consequential. We misremember a friend of a friend’s name. We pick up milk at the store because we thought we were running out, but we open the refrigerator and discover we were wrong. We wish we hadn’t ordered the Denver omelette because the pancakes someone else ordered look so good. Mistakes like these we can live with — literally.

Please accept the privilege to make mistakes. Try even being wrong on purpose, trusting others to catch the blooper before it falls. Everyone will benefit. Ideas will improve. Many will share the credit. The key to that freedom is under the seat where you’re sitting. It’s already yours — open it.


Don Kahle ( was president of the City Club of Eugene in 2002 and will be emceeing today’s program at noon at the Eugene Hilton. There is a charge for lunch or non-member seating, but the public is welcome to attend. The program will be broadcast next week on public access television and on KLCC-FM.

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