“You’re wrong,” a friend of mine said. “You’re wrong about me, and the little theories you have about people always end up being wrong. You’re so wrong about so many things, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if you might be just plain stupid.”
I don’t care what level of schooling one achieves, or the level of intelligence one gains through experience, such a charge goes to the bone. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to defuse the power of the characterization by examining the accessor’s comparative intelligence level, and the motivations they have for making such a charge, but it still leads to some soul searching.
“How can I be wrong about everything?” I asked her. “I might 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 told me, after harshly grading a paper I wrote.
I was a disinterested student for much of my schooling years, but I chose that paper to display whatever ability I had at the time. I’m not sure why I chose that particular paper, but I think it had something to do with my desire to prove myself to a teacher that I respected, and I think I wanted to prove something to myself too. Whatever my motivation was, I poured my soul into that assignment, and I couldn’t wait to see the grade I received. I also thought there would be effusive praise to follow.
I was wrong on both counts, and it crushed me. “I worked my tail off on this assignment,” I told her with that graded paper in hand.
“It was mealy-mouthed,” she said.
After she explained what mealy-mouthed meant, I said, “I did as you asked. You said that we had to be careful to present both sides.”
“You were instructed to provide evidence of the opposing opinion,” she said. “You presented too much evidence,” she said. “It was called a position paper, and that means you have to take a position when you write it. When I finished your paper, I still wasn’t sure which side you were on.”
She concluded the back and forth by offering me the opportunity to rewrite the paper, but before I left her desk she cautioned me with words that have stuck with me ever since. “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”
We’re all wrong, all the time. Knowing that might help us go deeper. Our attempts to understand human nature are going to be incomplete, fraught with error, and vulnerable to scrutiny. We’re going to encounter anecdotal evidence. “My aunt Judy is a person similar to what you are describing,” she says, “and she does not do what you are saying.” It bothers me in the moment, no one enjoys being wrong, but I go deeper. Am I wrong, or is that anecdotal evidence that only disproves me on a situational basis? Some naysayers argue that we deal in generalities, as if that is all that is necessary to disprove what we are saying. Yet, if what we say is generally true, 50.0001% of the time, it is a generality, and it is generally true.
The fear of being wrong is similar, in some ways, to the fear of being punched in the face. We all fear a punch to the face. Not only is it painful, but it might reveal things about us we don’t want our friends to know. It might reveal that we don’t know how to take a punch, because no one ever punched us before. It might reveal that we don’t know how to punch back, or fight in general, because we never fought anyone in our young lives. As we dig deeper into our fears, we realize that most of them are of the unknown qualities of our existence. If we’re ever lucky enough to receive such a punch square on the jaw, it can be liberating in an odd way. “I consider that punch a gift,” a boxer once said of his powerful punch to an opponents jaw. “He can probably live the rest of his life unafraid of being punched, because no one will ever hit him harder than that.” It’s a twisted logic, of course, but if we apply it to being wrong, we can see the logic for what it is.
How many of us have been so wrong, in front of so many people that we still cringe when we think about it. We can view it two ways. We can never say, or write, anything else again, fearing that we might be wrong again, or we can view it as a gift. We can say we’ll probably never be that wrong again, so what’s the big deal, or we can say, “I was wrong, big deal. I survived it, and in some ways it’s liberating to know that it’s not as bad as I feared it would be.”
“Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be wrong?” another person asked me years later.
“Have you ever met my dad?” I asked the person who had. “I think we pretty much covered the idea that I’m wrong about everything, every day for about eighteen years.” I considered it an insult, during those formative years, that my dad didn’t think I had the facilities to be an independent thinker, but I now know how difficult it is for a parent to believe that the person they knew as a toddler can arrive at independent thought, until I had my own child. It also took me a while to believe that my dad didn’t introduce me to this mindset just to drive me insane. Whether he intended it or not, my dad’s constant badgering did lead me to try to prove him wrong about me.
There is a certain compliment in the question that person asked me, somewhere down deep that the provocateur did not intend, regarding a confident presentation. People hate a confident presentation, so much that they feel compelled to douse the flame, but some people pose this question so often that those of us on the receiving end can’t help but wonder about their greater motivation. Is it a silky, smooth method of stating that they think the speaker is wrong, and so wrong that they might border on stupid? Do they truly think that we’ve never considered the possibility that we could be wrong before, or is it a method some use to undermine another’s credibility?
The interesting dynamic in such conversations is that prolonged involvement with such an accuser reveals that they’ve never considered the idea that they could be wrong. Their role in life, as far as they’re concerned, is that of a contrarian. They challenge the status quo, relative to their own life. This mindset does not, however, lead to reflection on one’s own set of beliefs. They focus all of their energy on refuting the speaker’s words and the “Have you ever considered the idea that you might be wrong?” is the best weapon they have in their arsenal.
The ideal method of refuting further questions of this sort is to be humble. If a speaker wants to win friends and influence people, they should qualify every statement with a preemptive strike, such as, “I could be wrong but-”. I used to do this, as often as social dictates require, but I found it tedious after a while.
I could be wrong, but I think any attempt a person makes to describe human nature is going to be fraught with peril. Some will not agree with various descriptions, and many will view the conclusions the author reaches as simplistic, trite, and anecdotal. Some might even view such positions, as so wrong, they could be stupid.
In one regard, I view such assessments with envy, because I don’t understand how someone 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 later. I assume she summarily dismissed the assessments I made of her, and I doubt she recalls them at all. I assume that she’s as certain now as she was then 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 the individual has gained through their interactions and experiences. If it’s true that definitions of human nature are relative, and that one’s assessments are based on the details of 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 on the pages of their autobiography.
What if I am as wrong as she claimed though? What if my stories don’t even come close to achieving what some might call a comprehensive study 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 who attempts to explain the nouns (people, places, and things) that surround them. As for an answer to those plagued by the enormity of trying to explain the otherwise unexplainable, I suggest that they pare it down to what they know. An author can only write what they know, and often times what they know is limited to what they hear, learn, and experience firsthand.
One trick I employ to try to understand human nature and explain my findings in an entertaining manner, is to employ a technique painters call sfumato. This technique involves shading and drawing attention to the background to enhance the central figure. Most people will not sit down at a Starbucks on Tuesday and explain their philosophy of life, or if they do it is an enhanced version of their truth. Their truth is somewhere outside what they tell you, in the shading and the background. The only way to find it with them, or for them, is to watch them outside that initial conversation, until we are experiencing their triumphs and failures vicariously, and we begin processing their autobiographies so thoroughly that they become part of our own. The curious mind must go beyond hearing only what the person telling the story wants us to hear if we are to fortify a thesis, and listen to what these people say.
Some will dismiss some of the stories contained herein as anecdotal evidence of human nature, and in some cases that might be true. To my mind, these tales 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 in the old Chinese proverb, “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which people leave a mark,” then those who preceded the author have played an integral role in shaping his definitions of human nature. This is not to say that one’s definition of human nature is limited to experience, but when we read books and see movies that depict questions and answers, we’re apt to be the most interested in those that apply to our own experience. A reader might ask, “Why do these particular stories appeal to your theories?” For that, the only suitable answers I’ve found are, “All theory is autobiography,” and “I’m telling my story, as I heard and responded to others.”
These quotes form the philosophical foundation of these pieces, coupled with an attachment, via a complicated circuitry, to the philosophy that drove Leonardo da Vinci’s numerous accomplishments. I can’t confirm that he said the actual words, but based on what I’ve read about da Vinci, questions informed his process more than answers. As such, I’ve derived the quote: “The answers to that which plagues man can be found in the questions he asks of himself.” Another quote that the reader will want to keep in mind is from playwright Anton Chekov: “It is the role of the storyteller to ask questions, not to answer them.”
It’s possible that the curious reader might find more questions than answers in these pages, and they may not derive anything beyond simple entertainment. For the author, each story comprises a central theme, one that I believe relates to my questions about motivation. The goal of each of piece was to explain, to one curious mind, human nature, and the answers touch on the questions I have asked the people in these interactions, from my small corner of the world. Some of those I’ve interacted with might fall on the fruitloppery index, and some might appear a bit delusional, but most of the characters of these stories appeared so normal on the surface that the author thought they might be boring. It’s impossible to know if we’ve asked the right questions, but when they open up and allow the author into the deep, dark recesses of their mind, we can feel some confidence that we’ve at least tapped into something they consider worthy of discussion.
While most of the following stories are based on real-life experiences, some readers might still require an “I may be wrong, but …” qualifier, lest they view the author as obnoxiously sure of himself. Those who prefer this should ask themselves a question, how interesting is it when an author qualifies all of their characterizations and conclusions in such a manner. Some authors do this, I’ve read their work. 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 they do so in fear that someone somewhere might tell them they’re wrong. Some might even go so far as to suggest that their experience is so different from the author’s that the author might be stupid. If this is the reason behind the need some authors have for qualifying so many of their conclusions, my advice to them would be to heed the words from my eighth grade teacher, “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”