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One of the first phrases I learned in the study of the contemporary Greek language is lipame – Greek shorthand 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 is lathos, meaning “mistake,” because I often make grammatical and linguistic blunders.

Occasionally, I also make cultural errors in this Greek setting and must say, “Lipame! Lathos mou!” (“I am sorry! My mistake!”)

Greek friends are usually willing to overlook my poor pronunciation, improper word endings and inappropriate usage of tenses.

Internally, however, I have little tolerance for these linguistic miscues, believing my language fluency should be perfect.

Unless I intentionally decide to give myself a break, 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.

These adults come to class after a hard day of underpaid, manual labor, so I suggested that their first goal should not be the development of perfect fluency.

Instead, they should seek 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 limited fluency in English vernacular.

I reminded him that even with his struggles, he is already perfectly able to make himself understood.

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 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!”

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.

Similarly, 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 also 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 we bypass by our failure (if I may use the word) to claim the learning associated with our failures.

When our mistakes only cause us embarrassment and self-depreciation because they cannot be owned, mined or harvested for our benefit, we are shortchanging 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.

Yet, sometimes I need to be reminded that only God is perfect and I am not – nor was I ever, since the fall of humanity, 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” (see 1 John 3:4, which uses the Greek word hamartia, often translated “sin”).

What is more, although our God is a holy and righteous God, it is his loving, gracious willingness to accept us, despite our mistakes, which is the basis for any salvation that 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!”

Bob Newell is ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Athens, Greece. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, ItsGreek2U, and is used with permission.

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