The Wisdom of Being Wrong
I have this idea that a big part of what is wrong with us as human beings is we don’t know how to be wrong. And it’s not only because we’re pig-headed fools. It seems to be something that’s hardwired into our brain. We know from research that people will go to great lengths to avoid facing facts which conflict with what they already believe. There are those who argue that this is what’s happening in our politics today. Or it could be that since we’re a nation of smart-asses, people who hate Obama are telling pollsters that they think he was born in Kenya just to piss everyone off. The world may never know. But the fact remains that there have been a lot of very good studies which have found that once we believe something to be true, it is bizarrely difficult to convince us that we are wrong.
Scientists think this is a perfectly reasonable survival mechanism which is shared by many animals as well. Experience is the best teacher after all. So once you experience something yourself or vicariously through someone with more experience, you learn lessons which you presume to be true. You stick to those lessons – maybe develop a way of doing things around them. And it usually works. Until your environment changes and you end up like a polar bear looking for an ice floe. Then you need to adjust.
Fortunately, if there’s anything that binds humans and bacteria together, it’s that we’re both fantastically adaptable. Frankly I think it’s a bit odd that we are actually surprised to find bacteria in inhospitable places. The bacteria are probably even more shocked that we showed up. By all rights, our physical capabilities should have kept us contained to temperate zones with enough moisture to allow for a year-round supply of food. You know, like the Garden of Eden was supposed to have been.
But that’s not us. We humans change things. We change the landscape and our locations and our clothes and bodies and even the songs we sing with glee. But changing our minds? That is one change we really don’t seem to like to do. A lot of us adhere to something my mom once told me: “I’d rather be wrong than change my mind.” (I’m pretty sure she was saying it in a “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right” sort of way and not as an expression of unwillingness to admit error. But it was still funny.) Fortunately, we all know from experience that biology or no, it doesn’t have to be this way. Not only do humans change, we grow up. In fact, we can grow up the way other organisms just grow – for our whole lives. If we want to. But it all depends on learning how to be wrong.
You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them? ~ Isaiah 48:6
When we refuse to admit that we are wrong, we’re not just insufferable to be around, we’re keeping ourselves from growing in maturity as well. In my experience, there is one difference between mature humans and immature humans. A mature human being has at least once in their life had the sudden (or growing) realization that they were wrong. And not just a little wrong. A lot wrong. Make the blood rush to your face or completely drain away wrong. At it’s most benign it’s when your buddy pulls out his smart phone and shows you that the point you’ve been arguing for the last 15 minutes is demonstrably wrong. Mandy Patinkin did not play the magician in The Princess Bride. That was Billy Crystal. Much worse is when you discover that the people you thought you could depend on aren’t there for you. But probably the very worst it’s when some cornerstone of what you think you know about yourself or your life is shown to be false. You’re not really a nice guy. You thought you could control something that you just can’t. Life, for example.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” ~ Proverbs 9:10
The thing which makes these events so jarring is that they are inevitably preceded by the absolute certainty that you are not wrong. Until you had to face the truth – you had been wrong. Depending on how hard you’d been holding onto the idea that you were right, it can be a really hard, damaging experience. Entire lives get wasted running away from being wrong like that.
Now, people who have had to admit that they are wrong don’t always become mature people. Sometimes they just continue on, certain that was just an isolated incident – not likely to happen again. They’ve changed enough now. Or if the experience of being wrong is too much for the person to cope with – if it’s traumatic enough – they might be even more resistant to admitting error again in order to avoid a repeat.
But as often as not, we learn to be more humble. We keep a little of ourselves skeptical in order to avoid going all in on something that is a mistake again. We become more mature. We’re willing to learn. We really can admit we’re wrong . . . eventually. We’re still vulnerable to those wake-up calls that inform us that it’s not the rest of the world – I’m the real problem here. Like when you have to accept that probably shouldn’t have majored in puppetry. But it’s still hard. It still hurts.
The good thing about these experiences is that once you accept that you’ve been wrong, life can move on. You realize that being wrong wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, letting yourself be wrong is often what puts you on track for a lot of good stuff. You admit that you really do have to show up on time to work and soon enough you’ve got the promotion. The next time you’re wrong it’s not so painful because you know from experience it’s not the end of the world. After a while you figure out that being wrong isn’t something to be afraid of after all.
Perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. ~ 1 John 4:18
I think maturity leads to wisdom when you start to actually try to figure out when you’re wrong long before you’re in danger of facing a wake-up call. Wisdom recognizes that because once being wrong can be empowering. Because if you are wrong, you can do something to fix that. Or at least learn to work around it. If the problems you have are caused by someone else, you’re at the mercy of their ability and willingness to change that. If your problems come from your circumstances, there’s only so much you can do about that. Sure you can try, but even the best of us get stuck on the way a time or two. It’s not a quick fix at any rate. But when you are wrong? Well, then you have some power over the situation.
Part of learning wisdom is learning to respond to conflicts and problems and pain by looking for your own contribution to the problem. Part of being wise is doing that before you’ve exhausted yourself trying to change other people or circumstances you don’t control first. And it could be that admitting you were wrong isn’t going to change your situation or fix your problem or make your pain vanish. But each time you get rid of something you had been doing or thinking or a paradigm that wasn’t true, what is good and true and can really be depended on comes closer into view.
Refusing to deal with being wrong just keeps you standing on sand. And no matter how nice the castle you build on that sand might be – it’s going to come crashing down. If we’re lucky it happens this side of the grave and not after we’ve wasted our lives depending on things that aren’t good and true and dependable. But each time you admit that you’re wrong, it’s like digging out some of the sand covering the bedrock below. Keep at it and you might be able to build something that won’t fall apart – in this life or in whatever life there is to come.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” ~Matthew 7:24-27