What if You’re Wrong?

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

I don’t care what level of schooling one has achieved, or how much confidence they have 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 the subject to some soul searching.

“How can I be wrong about everything?” was the first question I asked myself after that charge was made. “I may be wrong about some things, but I can’t be wrong about everything.”

In the course of 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. I poured my soul into that paper. The reason I focused so much attention on this one 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 my opportunity to prove something to myself and this teacher that I respected. As a result, I looked forward to having her grade it and the compliments that 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. I didn’t tell her that I rarely worked as hard on anything else she assigned me.

“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 our back and forth, she added ten words that have stuck with me since. “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”

Any attempt to describe human nature is going to be fraught with peril for anyone that makes such an attempt. People won’t agree with you, and they might view your conclusions as simplistic, trite, and anecdotal. Some might even view the positions the author 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 wrong.

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 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 we can say with any certitude is that the best story one author can tell is that which is listed in their autobiography.

What if I am as wrong, as my friend stated, and these stories don’t even come close to 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 I 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 unexplainable is to listen to the stories from those around them, experience their triumphs and failures vicariously, and respond to tales from their autobiography, until they become a part of their own.

Some will dismiss some of these stories as anecdotal evidence of the story of human nature, and some of them may be, but 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 every person leaves a mark,” then it could be said that every person’s definition of human nature is shaped by the people that have surrounded them in childhood and beyond. That 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 find that we’re 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.”

I would also say that these quotes attach themselves, via a complicated circuitry, to the philosophy that drove Leonardo da Vinci’s numerous accomplishments. I don’t know if he actually said these 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.”

A reader may not derive anything from these stories beyond simple entertainment, but to me each story comprises a central theme of what I believe ignites motivation. The goal of each of these pieces was to explain, to one curious mind, the nature of mankind. The answers hit me as a result of interactions from my very small corner of the world.

For those readers that require qualifications, lest they view the author as obnoxiously sure of himself, consider this prologue the answer to those questions. The reader should also ask themselves, if they continue to have questions about the author’s state of mind, is how interesting would it be if an author qualified all of their characterizations and conclusions with various forms of “I could be wrong, 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.