I don’t like being wrong. Despite years of practice at it, I still find it irksome.
But that’s not entirely accurate. It’s not the being wrong that bothers me so much as the finding out that I’m wrong. Being wrong is actually quite comfortable just so long as I’m unaware of it. Ignorance is, as they say, bliss, and that blissful condition remains pleasant and soothing up until such time as reality intrudes and I find out about it. That’s when I get annoyed.
In the previous post, I noted that knowing true things is preferable to mistakenly knowing untrue things. I absolutely believe that — in the abstract. What I have a hard time with is the transition from one to the other. This is not a rational response, of course. At a purely rational level, I want to unlearn the untrue things that I may now think I know. I’m fully aware that right now, as you read this, there are many, many things that I think are true which are not,* and at some level I very much want to figure out what those are and to correct them, the sooner the better.
But still, when it comes to that moment of correction, it’s unlikely that I’ll experience it with joy and gratitude. I’m likelier to get a bit ornery and defensive, resisting the newer, better information and trying, at first, to cling to what I thought I knew.
This is probably something of a character flaw. It’s a reaction that can, if we poke a bit, probably be traced in part to every one of the seven deadly sins. But I don’t think it’s a unique character flaw. It seems to be something that many people do when confronted with the reality that something they knew for sure ain’t so.
That may not be ideal, but it can also be useful. It has, at times, helped me. Because whatever the source of this stubborn reluctance might be, one result of it is that I wind up engaged with the new-to-me truer truth. That engagement may initially be hostile, but that hostility compels me to pay attention. It gets me to the point of, “Oh yeah? Well, we’ll see about that!” And, as embarrassing as that misplaced hostility may later prove to be, it has the salutary effect of compelling me to see about that, which means it can render me, perhaps for the first time, capable of seeing about that.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from (I think) Tom Sine, describing his initial response to hearing Ron Sider speak about his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. The first third of that book is just Bible, Bible, Bible — running through the huge number of biblical texts and themes dealing with wealth, poverty, economic justice, and generosity. This is, it turns out, a major, relentless theme in the Bible. Counting verses is a very evangelical thing to do and so Jim Wallis, who is very evangelical, counted them, and found more than 2,000 Bible verses on the topic — something like one out of every 10 in the book.
But Tom (if this was him), like most white evangelicals in America, had never noticed this. As a good Christian, he’d read the Bible. A lot. He’d read it from cover to cover and he’d studied it chunk-by-chunk in personal daily devotions, in Sunday school, and in small groups. And yet all that money and justice stuff had been, for him, invisible. The text that appeared to him had been only the text he had been taught and trained to perceive, which was all about … I dunno, not worshipping idols and avoiding lust, maybe, or about praying and evangelizing and such.
Now all of a sudden some tweedy Mennonite has the audacity to come along and suggest that this text said something else, and that he’d somehow missed it despite all those years of dutiful daily reading and study. “Oh yeah? Well, we’ll see about that!”
And so Tom angrily dove back into his Bible. He was going to show this guy what’s what. He was going to pore over every page to prove that this wasn’t some major theme he’d somehow missed and …
Oh. Wow. There it is, there all along. And suddenly he felt like Timothy Busfield in Field of Dreams:
Something similar happened to me with the “doctrine” of Hell. That had been a major piece of the Christianity I had been taught, and the Christianity I had assumed, and the Christianity I had been taught to assume. I knew it was in the Bible and from the Bible. Everybody knew that, didn’t they?
But then I read somebody suggesting that it wasn’t really in the Bible or from the Bible, not in the way I’d always thought it was. They had the audacity to try to tell me that Paul never mentioned Hell, and that the idea was nowhere to be found in the Hebrew scriptures. And so I go angry and defensive and ornery, and I set out to prove that this nonsense was no threat to what I had been sure that I should be sure of. That anger began as a determination to disprove something true, but it also became the thing that finally enabled me to see the truth that was there the whole time.
I know there’s a ton of literature debunking the idea of debunking. Correcting mistaken reports can have the perverse effect of reinforcing the original mistake. The repetition of basic facts that have been present all along isn’t usually enough to allow those who haven’t seen them to see them at last. “Kirk Drift” is a powerful thing, and even saying “Kirk never romanced the green woman” may only cause people to double down on the misapprehension that he did.
But I’m also impressed with the way that angry defensiveness and the sheer unpleasantness of being wrong can sometimes cut through all of that. I know this is possible from personal experience, and I’ve seen it happen for others. You can’t change somebody else’s mind, but if you can bring them to the moment of “Oh yeah? Well, we’ll see about that!” you may spark in them the ability to change their own mind, and to finally see what they’ve been unable to see before.
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* There are also many, many things I now think are true which are, in fact, actually true. The problem, of course, is that I can’t know which are which. The human condition can be frustrating.