I'm on a retreat this week so I've delved into my archive and chosen this one to send you. While self-esteem is a great thing, accepting our fallibility might be even greater.
We have an interesting relationship with being wrong, do we not? You may notice that while other people are wrong regularly, we ourselves rarely are. You may also notice that when we are wrong, we never realise until afterwards - otherwise we would have adjusted wouldn't we? So we're never aware of being wrong in the moment.
I have just finished the most fascinating book - Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz - in which she explores these interesting thoughts. If you would like to have your brain stretched with new ideas, read some fascinating stories and have a really good laugh - get a copy!
'Certain mistakes can kill us, but many, many more of them just make us want to die' Schulz
A while back I was having lunch with a group of colleagues. We were chatting about a coach who came over to the UK from time to time to run one-off sessions. Normally this coach would stay with one of us, to reduce costs, and most recently she had stayed with my friend Mary, in a salubrious part of town. 'It was great coming to your place this year, Mary,' I said, 'last year,' (and I screwed up my nose) 'it was in a really dodgy area of north London.'
At this point there was a terrible silence. Moments later a little voice piped up from the end of the table.
'Actually it was my place.'
Although this took place about three years ago, my mortified soul remembers it as if it were yesterday.
As Schulz points out in her book, the freshness of our memory of errors rarely correlates with the size of those errors. The much larger errors we make - like marrying the wrong person, choosing the wrong career, buying the wrong house - may cause immeasurably more damage to our lives, and yet it is not those errors which make us sit bolt upright in bed at two in the morning crying 'No-o-o-o!'.
Perhaps one reason for this is that the most painful errors are the ones we make in public. Private little errors, like damaging the psyche's of our children (as all parents are bound to do), are somehow less excruciating for our tender souls than, for example, pronouncing 'Goethe' as 'Go-eth' when asking a question at a prestigious university lecture; a personal experience of error that Schulz describes in her book. Mispronouncing a foreign name is hardly the crime of the century, yet it is not difficult to imagine how one would feel in those circumstances. And the reason for feeling so bad is, almost certainly, that your ideal self image has not only taken a humiliating beating, but it has done so in front of several hundred people for whom a similar self image is just as important.
So painful is it to be wrong that we go to strenuous efforts to avoid it, and yet none of those efforts can really help because when we make mistakes we have no idea we are making them. So why don't we give ourselves a break and stop trying to be perfect, which is both tedious and deflating for other people, and start becoming human?
Well, because we do so like being right, and if we're going to start celebrating being wrong we need to find some good reasons. Here are a few that Schulz points out in her book:
Humour. While I writhed in embarrassment at the lunch table, my so-called friends were in stitches, stitches that resume whenever they remember it I might say.
'If it is sweet to be right, then - let's not deny it - it is downright savoury to point out that someone else is wrong' Schulz
Progress. You learn from wrongness in a way that you just don't when everything goes well. Many scientific discoveries were made as a result of error.
'If we can't do the emotional work of accepting our mistakes, we can't do the conceptual work of figuring out where, how and why we made them.'
Art. Why do paintings tend to speak more powerfully to us than more 'truthful' photographs? Why do we spend so much of our time reading fiction? Art stirs our imaginations and hearts.
'Error is a place where 'the soul has room enough to expand herself.'
Benjamin Franklyn (quoted in Being Wrong)
Relationships. Schulz talks about the old adage of therapists that you can either be right or you can have a relationship. 'Good luck trying to do both,' she says.
Imagination, inspiration, individuality, intelligence. Germaine Greer was vilified in the eighties for saying that the pill had been a disaster for women because it had played straight into the hands of men who wanted women to be available for sex at any given moment. People pointed out that she had said how great it was for women when she was writing in the seventies. But how awful would it be if we never changed our minds, if experience and reflection didn't have the power to test our beliefs....?
Challenging beliefs. All parts of our experience are driven by beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious. If you are having trouble in a relationship, for example, that trouble is caused predominantly by what you believe a relationship should be like. If your partner spends 'too much' time away from home, you have a belief about how much time a partner should be at home. If you are annoyed because your friend didn't sympathise with your recent bad luck story, you have a belief about the role that friends should play. But what if you're wrong? What if marriages can work better if one person is away a lot? What if the role of a good friend is to challenge you, rather than sympathise? What if your bad luck story isn't a bad luck story at all?
There are few more devastating experiences than believing that your life is a certain way, that your home and family is in a certain place, that you have a certain amount of safety and stability in your life; and then one day there's an earthquake and a tsunami rises up and sweeps over your town, your home, your life, until moments later there is nothing left of it. If thousands of people could be as wrong as this, imagine what else we could be wrong about.
1. Take a situation in your current life that is causing you trouble. What are the things you have to believe about this situation in order for it to be a problem?
2. When you've found the beliefs that are most crucial for keeping this situation alive for you, take one and ask, what if I'm wrong about this?
Enjoy being wrong this week....