Are we at fault or are we faulty people?

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

One of life’s greatest gifts is the ability to see people’s faults without seeing them as faulty persons. I’m convinced that’s not only a gift, but an evolving gift that needs to be constantly cultivated.

For some, it comes naturally. They know just how to view the situation and can sort out swiftly the deed from the doer. Some even have that marvelous ability to affirm the person while admonishing the action.

Others struggle, quickly valuing people solely by their actions.

Yet, we all can have this gift. As my father once wrote, “It can be purchased on the market of common sense at the nominal cost of sensitive practice.”

Observation and awareness of the situation’s context are critical in teasing out the “trait” from a “state.” Who we are can differ from what we do. With practice, we can learn to perceive a person’s failures without painting them a failure. We can detect their bad actions and habits without labeling them bad people.

New parents may learn that lesson quickly when their toddler begins testing limits and “no” becomes a regular directive. Gone are the days when we routinely reprimand our kids with, “Bad boy,” or “Bad girl.” We’re told to focus the criticism on the behaviors, not the child.

However, we sometimes still see demonstrations of such practices in athletics. Some coaches coach persons, not players, while others coach players rather than persons. Their chosen philosophy dictates their actions.

A young athlete blows a critical play. He or she erred egregiously, dropping a pop fly, fumbling the football or missing a wide open shot. The coach may say one of two things:

“That was a terrible play you just missed. You’re better than that. Get back in there and do what you are capable of doing.”

Or, “What’s wrong with you? How could you miss that? You’re a terrible player. You’ll never make it.”

One criticizes the play; the other callously indicts the person.

In this challenging assignment called life, we all drop the ball or miss wide open shots at times. Mistakes are often the mark of honest effort while failures can indicate a real mark of trying.

But we make life’s biggest mistake when we judge ourselves as “a failure” in light of our failures. We, too, need to tease out who we are from what we do. And trust that friends, teachers, family and loved ones will not make that big mistake with us or for us.

We’re not perfect. We are all a work in progress, with both faulty behaviors and traits. Even with the best parents, the finest coaches and the most loving and supportive friends and family, we will err. Yet, much of our future success and happiness will depend on how we handle these failures. Each failure presents an opportunity to learn about the mistake and about ourselves.

Faults, failures and mistakes do not make us subhuman. They merely indicate we are human and in need of human understanding and help.