I Could Be Wrong, But …


“You’re wrong,” a friend of mine said. “You’re wrong about me, you’re wrong about these little theories you have about other people, and you’re so wrong about so many things that I’m beginning to wonder if you might be just plain stupid.”

I don’t care what level of schooling one has achieved, how much intelligence one gains through experience, or the level of confidence one has in their abilities, a characterization as harsh as that hurts. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to diffuse the notion that they’re stupid by examining their accessor’s intelligence level, and their motivations for making such a charge, but it still leads to some soul searching.

“How can I be wrong about everything?” was the question I asked after she made the charge. “I may be wrong about some things, but how can I be wrong about everything?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You just are.”

In the course of licking my wounds, I remembered something my eighth grade teacher once told me.

She gave me a harsh grade on a position paper. I worked my tail off on that paper. I poured my soul into that paper. The reason I focused so much energy on that paper had to do with the fact that I was not a good student. I rarely applied myself. I had this notion that that if I ever did apply myself, my true intelligence would finally be revealed. This particular paper, I thought, was that opportunity. I also thought it might prove something to this teacher I respected. As a result, I looked forward to receiving her grade and all of the effusive praise I felt sure would follow. It was one of the few times in my life I looked forward to receiving a grade.

“I worked my tail off on that assignment,” I said when I held that graded paper in hand.

“It was mealy mouthed,” she said. After she explained what mealy mouthed meant, I informed her that she instructed us to be careful to present both sides on this paper. I said I did that. “You were instructed to provide evidence of the opposing opinion,” she said. “You presented too much evidence,” she said. “The assignment involved taking a position. At the end of your paper, I wasn’t sure what side you were taking.” In the midst of the back and forth that followed, she added ten words that have stuck with me since. “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”

***

“Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be wrong?” another person would ask me years later.

It’s funny how often people pose this notion. They often do it in a provocative manner that suggests that the recipient of the challenge has never considered that idea before. If it’s not that, then the provocateur wants the speaker to satisfy their needs, and their ego, before the speaker continues. I want to ask these provocateurs if they’ve ever met my dad. This particular provocateur knew my dad well. They knew that throughout my youth my dad questioned everything that came out of my mouth to a point that it was obvious he thought I was wrong about everything. He also made it obvious that he didn’t much of my abilities as an independent thinker. I considered this an insult in my younger years, but I now understand how difficult it is for a parent to believe that that person they knew as a toddler can arrive at independent thought, but it took me a while to reach that understanding. I don’t think my dad introduced this mindset to lead me to spend the rest of my life trying to prove him wrong, but that was the result.

It astounds me that some people’s ability to reflect on life is so poor, but the alternative is that this person was attempting to insult me, or he needed me to feed his ego by cajoling me into qualifying everything I say with “I could be wrong but-”. If it was due to his inability to reflect on life, then his question was an uninformed condemnation of me.

***

I could be wrong, but I think any attempt a person makes to describe human nature is going to be fraught with peril. Most people will not agree with the descriptions, and they might view that person’s conclusions as simplistic, trite, and anecdotal. Some might even view the positions a person takes, as so wrong, they could be stupid.

In one regard, I view such assessments with envy. I don’t understand how people can unilaterally reject another’s opinion with such certitude. I still don’t, as evidenced by the fact that I still remember my friend’s ‘You might be stupid’ charge more than twenty years after she made it. I assume that she dismissed the assessments I made of her so well that she doesn’t remember them, as she was as certain then, as I assume she is now, that she was right and I was not only wrong, but I could be stupid.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that one’s definition of human nature relies on the perspective they’ve gained through their interactions and experiences. If it’s true that our definitions of human nature are relative, and that one author’s assessments are based on the details of the their upbringing, then the only thing anyone can say with any certitude is that the best story an author can tell is that which is listed in their autobiography.

What if I am as wrong as my friends have stated, and my stories don’t even come close to achieving what some would call an astute analysis of human nature. What if every belief I’ve had over the course of the last twenty years is so off the mark, or so wrong, that they might be stupid? These questions should haunt every writer, artist, and theoretician that attempts to explain the nouns (people, places, and things) that surround them. The answer I have for those plagued by the enormity of trying to explain the otherwise inexplicable is to pare it down to the knowable. An author can only write what they know, and often times what they know is that which is told to them.

Those that know me often say that for all of my faults, I am a great listener. They also say that my curiosity appears genuine. I don’t listen for eventual writing material, in other words, but such content is a natural byproduct to those that are curious enough to learn another person’s truth. The trick to achieving such a truth is to go beyond whatever personal roadblocks we place in front of those with whom we interact to the point of experiencing their triumphs and failures vicariously, until we are processing their autobiographies so thoroughly that they become a part of our own. Go beyond hearing what a person wants another to hear, to fortify your thesis, and listen to what these people are saying. Use critical analysis, by trying to avoid conclusions, until the two of you reach the end of their story.

Some will dismiss some of the stories I use to explain human nature as anecdotal evidence of human nature. Some of them may be. To my mind, they explain the motivations of the characters involved, and the stories and theories I arrived at that have shaped my definition of human nature, and presumably my autobiography, better than any other stories can.

If there is a grain a truth to the Chinese proverb, “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which people leave a mark,” then those that preceded the author have shaped their definition of human nature. This is not to say that one’s definition of human nature is limited to experience. Yet, when we read theories and see movies that depict questions and answers, we’re apt to be most interested in those that apply to our own experience. So, the question a reader might ask is, ‘Why did these particular stories appeal to your theories?’ The only suitable answers I’ve been able to find are, “All theory is autobiography,” and “I’m telling my story, as I heard and responded to others.”

These quotes form the foundation of these pieces, coupled with an attachment, via a complicated circuitry, to the philosophy that drove Leonardo da Vinci’s numerous accomplishments. I don’t know if he said these actual words, but from that which I’ve read on da Vinci, questions informed his process more than answers, and I derived a quote: “The answers to that which plagues man can be found in the questions he asks of himself.” The second is a direct quote from playwright Anton Chekov: “It is the role of the storyteller to ask questions not to answer them.”

As such, the curious reader might find more questions than answers on this site, and they may not derive anything beyond simple entertainment, but to the author each story comprises a central theme of the questions I have regarding motivation. The goal of each of these pieces was to explain, to one curious mind, the nature of mankind. The answers hit the author based on the questions I have asked people in the interactions I have had, from my very small corner of the world. Some of the people the author interacted with were on the fruitloppery index, and some of them were a bit delusional, but most of the characters of these stories appeared so normal that the author thought they might be boring, until I listened, asked questions, and all but physically entered the dark caverns of their mind.

For those readers that still require “I may be wrong, but …” style qualifications, lest they view the author as obnoxiously sure of himself, consider this an answer to those questions. The reader should also ask themselves –if they continue to have questions about the author’s state of mind– how interesting would it be if an author qualified all of their characterizations and conclusions with various forms of “I could be wrong here, but …” Those authors are out there, and I’ve read them. They spend so much of their time dutifully informing their readers that they’re not “obnoxious blowhards” that they end up saying little more. It’s so redundant and tedious that I can’t help thinking that if they fear they might be wrong, they should be so with conviction.

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