It’s Hard to Be Right
January 19, 2015
When you’re right, it’s hard to be humble. When you’re always right, it’s even harder. A plaque my wife put in our kitchen reminds me about this: “When I married Mr. Right… I didn’t know his first name was Always.” (Already I have to confess that I’m not always right. When I shared a draft of this essay with her, my dear wife reminded me that we together saw this plaque in a shop, we both laughed, and I bought it. It is still in the kitchen, though.)
I’ve been trying to learn from Dallas Willard, a brilliant scholar and teacher in both the university and the Church. He was sure-fire smart and had thought about ideas more carefully than most, but the people who knew him best describe him as always humble and always gracious. “It’s hard to be right and not hurt anyone with it,” he’d say. When you’re sure you’re right, you can hurt people in all sorts of ways – belittle them, embarrass them, attack them, ignore them. Or you can give them a look that says, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that people who disagree with you may have something worthwhile to say. But it could happen. So skipping the evil eye, showing respect, and listening patiently might be okay.
Dallas would also say, “I assume that I am wrong about some things, because everyone else I know is wrong about some things, and it would be very unusual.” Not that you’d actually set out to be wrong. Mostly we’re not wrong on purpose, though sometimes we might avoid learning more so we don’t risk having to change our minds or admit that we were mistaken, maybe especially about things that are dear to us. In a Charles Schulz “Peanuts” cartoon, author Snoopy announces the title to his new book on theology, Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong? Sometimes I read books like that, not with that title, but with that spirit. Sometimes they rattle my cage.
A slightly less distinguished theologian, Mark Twain, once remarked, “The thing that gets you in trouble isn’t what you don’t know, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We might swap stories about how we’ve discovered this in our lives, privately or publicly. As a teacher I know that I’ve passed along wrong ideas and information, all the while trying to learn and grow. This can humble you; you’d like a do-over. And you regret any hurt you have caused. Sometimes I’ve made a huge mistake, kind of a “magnum oopsus,” though I won’t entertain you with accounts of all of these, and I might magnum my oopsus again. I’ve seen folks who too readily defend or get entrenched in their error. I’ve seen others who, even if embarrassed, will share their change of mind. All in all, it makes sense to me to find grace and humility, maybe especially about the things we know for dead certain. Humor helps, too, by creating perspective and reminding us of human frailty.
Of course, most folks are trying to think as straight as they can, even with all the distractions and roadblocks we may face. They aren’t joining those who say, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking of making a few more.” But I’ve discovered over time that I know less than I thought I did, that the vast world won’t yield easily to my grasp, and that mystery piles wonder on wonder far beyond my imagination. Maybe it’s part of learning and growing. Maybe it’s age; I keep trying to remember my date of birth and phone number when medical clerks ask. In the end, though, I keep trying to be as right as I can, but I want to learn more of humility and grace. And I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.