A Lesson from Leo Buscaglia: The Art of Forgiving Your Mistakes

Recently, while waiting in freeway traffic, I absentmindedly turned on our car stereo. A loud voice was literally yelling about celebrating life and loving fully. I was about to turn off the stereo when I suddenly recognized the voice. Tears of joy filled my eyes. It was Leo Buscaglia. Barry had left the tape in the stereo as a surprise.

Back in 1970, Leo had been my faculty preceptor while I was getting my master’s degree at USC. He had also been a close friend and neighbor. I hadn’t heard his voice in over twenty-five years. We had heard of him, of course, as he had gone on to become a national best-selling author and speaker.

Barry and I were twenty-three when we first met Leo. He was the most extraordinary teacher we had ever met. We had never seen anyone hug people before, or speak the way he did about risking and loving. I was in one of his first “Love” classes at USC. He taught me many things, but perhaps the greatest was the power of self-forgiveness.

I remember so clearly one particular day at the USC campus in Los Angeles. I was waiting for an elevator to take me to the fifth floor. These elevators were unlike any other elevators I’d ever experienced. They moved at a snail’s pace. It was not unusual to wait 10-15 minutes for the elevator to arrive at your floor. It seemed to take forever for the door to open and then an endless wait for the door to close again. Then there was the actual ride, an agonizingly slow, inch by inch creeping up or down the shaft. I would have preferred to walk up and down the stairs, were they not hot, smelly, dark, very unpleasant, and you never knew who might be lurking there.

So there I was waiting us usual for the elevator when Leo came running over. He had a meeting that was supposed to start in five minutes on the fifteenth floor. He explained that the traffic had been bad and how important it was for him to be on time for this meeting. The elevator laboriously ascended from the basement. Together we predicted he would probably only be five minutes late for his meeting. He relaxed and we began talking about classes as the elevator inched upwards. We became so engrossed in conversation that Leo stepped off the elevator with me at the fifth floor. He walked along with me until he realized he was on the wrong floor. We rushed back only to hopelessly watch the elevator doors close. Then reality struck. We both knew he had maybe a fifteen minute wait until the elevator returned, and then a ten minute ride up. A heart condition prevented him from running up the ten flights of stairs. He’d simply have to wait and be late for his meeting.

I left Leo and started walking to my class, but then I stopped and turned around. What happened next was an image that has become permanently imbedded in my mind and heart. I was only a short distance away from him. Leo’s back was to me as he faced the elevator doors. There he was hugging himself and saying, “It’s alright Leo. You got off at the wrong floor and will be late but you are still a beautiful person. I love you, Leo, you adorable guy. It’s cute how you keep making these funny mistakes.”

I had to smile. I had seen people under similar circumstances swear, throw books on the ground, stomp their feet, and in many other ways act irritated and angry toward themselves for making a mistake. Yet there was Leo, alone in the hallway, knowing how late he would be for his meeting because of his mistake, and he was hugging himself and sending himself loving messages. I had never seen anyone use a mistake as a chance to give themselves love.

To this day, whenever I make a mistake, the image comes to mind of Leo Buscaglia hugging himself in front of the elevator doors. I realize I have a clear choice. I can either judge or criticize myself or else use the opportunity to accept and nurture myself. It is so freeing to be able to say, “It’s alright that you made that mistake, Joyce. You are still precious and wonderful. You are really an adorable girl.”

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