What if You’re Wrong?


“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 hurts. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to defuse the power of the characterization by examining the accessor’s intelligence level, and the motivations they have for making such a charge, but it inevitably leads to some soul searching.

“How can I be wrong about everything?” I asked after she made the charge. “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 said with the graded paper in hand.

“It was mealy-mouthed,” she said.

After she explained what mealy-mouthed meant, I informed her, “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. “The assignment involved taking a position. When I finished your paper, I still wasn’t sure which side you take.”

She concluded the back and forth that followed with ten words that have stuck with me ever 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 question so often that those of us that receive it so often, can’t help but wonder about their 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 way of undermining our credibility?

As for the idea that I’ve never considered it before, I want to ask them if they’ve ever met my dad. The second example of a person asking me this question, knew my dad well. He knew my dad questioned everything that came out of my mouth. He also knew that my dad believed I was wrong about everything, and that my dad assumed that I didn’t have the facilities to be an independent thinker. During my younger years, I considered this an insult, but I now understand how difficult it is for a parent to believe that the person they knew as a toddler can arrive at independent thought. Of course, it took a while for me to reach that level of understanding that my dad didn’t introduce me to such a mindset just to lead me to try to prove him wrong, but that was the result nonetheless.

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 vantage point is often that of the contrarian, of one who challenges what they consider the status quo, relative to their own life. This mindset does not 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 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 about 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 one person 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 an 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 in their autobiography.

What if I am as wrong as my friends have stated, is a question I must ask. 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 the knowable. An author can only write what they know, and often times what they know is limited to what they hear, learn, and experience firsthand.

Those who know me often say that, in spite of all of my faults, I am a great listener. They also say my curiosity appears genuine. I don’t listen with the aim of developing content, but content is a natural byproduct of a curious mind seeking to learn the details beyond which the person considers their motivations. The trick to arriving at their definition of the truth is to listen and watch these people beyond the 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 authors have played an integral role in shaping their definitions of human nature. This is not to say that one’s definition of human nature is limited to experience, but when we read theories 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 entirely possible that the curious reader might find more questions than answers in these pages, and they may not derive anything beyond simple entertainment. For me, the author, each story comprises a central theme, one that I believe relates to my questions about motivation. The goal of each of these pieces was to explain, to one curious mind, human nature, and the answers touch on the questions I have asked people in the interactions I have had, 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. When these characters began their story, the author asked all the right questions, as evidenced by the fact that they opened up and allowed the author into the darkest recesses of their mind.

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 know, 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.”

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