I Could be Wrong, but …


“You’re wrong,” a friend of mine said. “You’re wrong about me, all these little theories you have about other people are wrong, 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 achieves, or the level of intelligence one gains through experience, a charge as harsh as that one hurts. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to diffuse the power of the characterization 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 first 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.”

After licking my wounds, I remembered something my eighth grade teacher once told me.

She gave me a harsh grade on an assigned position paper. I worked my tail off on that paper, and I poured my soul into it. The reason I devoted so much energy into that paper had something 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 that I so respected. As a result, I looked forward to receiving her grade and all of the effusive praise I assumed 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 an opposing view,” 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 asked me years later.

Some people pose this notion as often as possible. It’s a silky, smooth way of stating that they think they might be right, and they pose the notion that the speaker might be wrong, as if the speaker has never considered that idea before.

As for the idea that I’ve never considered it before, I want to ask them if they’ve ever met my dad. The person that asked me this question, on this particular occasion, knew my dad well. They knew that my dad questioned everything that came out of my mouth. They also knew that my dad believed I was wrong about everything, and he assumed that I didn’t have the facilities to be 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 decades to reach that understanding. I don’t think my dad introduced me to this mindset to lead me to try to prove him wrong about me, but that was the result.

The interesting dynamic in these conversations is that prolonged involvement with a person that makes such a charge reveals the idea that they’ve never considered that they could be wrong. Their vantage point is often that of the contrarian, and that contrarian challenges what they consider a status quo relative to their own life. This mindset does not lead to reflection on one’s own set of beliefs. They have focused 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 qualify every statement a speaker makes with, “I could be wrong but-”. As I’ll note below, I used to do this, but I found it tedious after a while.

***

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

In one regard, I view such comprehensive and authoritative assessments with envy. I don’t understand how a person can unilaterally reject another’s opinion with such certitude, and 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 brunt of 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 heavily on the perspective they’ve gained through their interactions and experiences. If it’s true that 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.

If the author of such pieces has any intellectual honesty, they must consider the idea that they’re as wrong as their contrarians suggest especially if said stories don’t come close to achieving a comprehensive study of human nature.

The author must also ask themselves if every belief they’ve had over the course of the last twenty years are 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 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 with an eye towards developing content, in other words, but content is a natural byproduct to those that are curious enough to learn another person’s truth. The trick to arriving at another’s relative truth is to attempt to move others beyond whatever roadblocks they place on information outlays. The genuinely curious author guides them past privacy issues and embarrassing details and thoughts, until the two of us are experiencing their triumphs and failures vicariously, and the author’s job at that point is to begin processing their autobiographies so thoroughly that they become a part of our own. Go beyond listening to what a person wants others to hear, to fortify a thesis, and hear what these people are saying. At that point, the genuinely curious author will visit the life of the accused and speak with their parents, walk around their garage, and visit with some of their childhood friends. There is a reason that these people think the way they do and taking a bite of the cookie that their mother provides all of her visitors will provide that.

As for the charge that some of these stories are anecdotal evidence of human nature, I admit that some of them are. To my mind, however, 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 had their their definition of human nature shaped by those that preceded them. This is not to say that these definitions are limited to experience, but 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 in these stories, 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 Fruitloopery 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 they told their story. When they told their story, the author asked suitable questions, the characters opened up, and the author engaged with the storyteller until he all but physically entered the dark caverns of their mind.

One final caveat the intellectually honest author must consider before approaching such a complicated thesis is that they might be the crazy one. If the reader wants to experience such a quandary firsthand, the author suggests watching an episode of the Twilight Zone called Eye of the Beholder. This episode brilliantly portrays the idea of relative truths. A patient, named patient 307, undergoes her ninth plastic surgery in pursuit of normalcy. “I just want people not to scream when they looked at me,” she says as nurses and doctors attempt to calm her fears, before they take her bandages off.

When the doctors remove the damages, the camera introduces what to us a person that we consider beautiful. This woman fulfills all of our bullet points of beauty, yet it also reveals the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the doctors and nurses are aghast at the product before them. The doctors and nurses all have sunken pig faces with which the beautiful blonde somehow believes she cannot compete on this relative beauty index. The audience acknowledges, at this point, that this scene occurs in another land, a land located in the Twilight Zone, where sunken pig faces are the relative definition of beauty. The sunken, pig faces regard the beautiful blonde as so ghastly that she must now accept the fact that she is to live with her own kind, for such ghastliness cannot be permitted to walk among decent, sunken pig-faced people.

Although I wish I could quote highbrow literature or philosophy to express such a point, some of us are products of the Rod Serling and Sherwood Schwartz age. We wish we could drop names like Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust, or Soren Kirkegaard, but their philosophical treatises were not part of our foundation. I do hope you read more of my pieces, but if you don’t, for whatever reason, I would appreciate if you told your people that all of my Ibsen references turned you off.

The caveat Eye of the Beholder provides is the admission that the observations I make from what I consider the rational world could have an inverse relationship with what most people consider normal. My definition of normal consists of everything I’ve learned over the years, and I’ve comported myself in a normal way, but is that a delusional definition?

I find it impossible to believe that I’m the delusional one, but that might be the very definition of delusional. Those that know me well might be too polite to tell me I’m off my rocker. If I’m going to be intellectually honest, I must accept the idea that I might be sunken, pig-faced character looking at the world of beautiful blondes saying, “Sorry, I tried to help you in every way I could, but you are crazy, and you should live with people of your own kind.”

Even though most of these stories are based on real life experiences, there will always be some readers that require “I may be wrong, but …” qualifications, lest they view the author as obnoxiously sure of himself. This reader should wonder how interesting it would be if an author qualified all of their characterizations and conclusions with various forms of “I could be wrong here, but …” For these readers, I would suggest the reader seek those authors. They 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 those authors fear they might be wrong, they should be so with conviction.

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