I made a mistake in one of my magazine articles last month and I had to write an erratum for the upcoming issue. For fun I looked up quotes on the subject of being wrong:
“When you realize you've made a mistake, make amends immediately. It's easier to eat crow while it's still warm.” This is attributed to a gent named Dan Heist and seems to be the only thing he’s noted for. I couldn’t find anything else about him.
And then there was this from Yogi Berra, who knew whereof he spoke: “We made too many wrong mistakes.”
I especially liked this one from British broadcaster John Peel: “I never make stupid mistakes. Only very, very clever ones.”
My blunder was just sloppy research, not clever, but it got me thinking about a recurring topic in my household: How can two people with opposing viewpoints hold a courteous discussion, supposing one of them thinks the other is mistaken?
After two decades of discussing things with me, my husband, Joe, has a viable answer. In fact, he often is asked by friends if he will perform marriage counseling services for them (he politely declines). “The four most important words in a marriage,” he says, “are ‘Honey, I was wrong.’”
He’s right. I’ve forgiven him countless times. And vice versa. I know his method works because we celebrate 19 years of wedded bliss next week. Ogden Nash put it this way: “To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you're wrong, admit it; Whenever you're right, shut up.”
Mistakes can be useful in personal relationships. They give us the opportunity to be wrong for a change, which is restful since we all work so hard to be right all the time.
I’ve noticed we’re pretty quick to tell somebody he or she is wrong, especially when it concerns politics, religion, and family matters. This is based on faulty logic, that two people can’t both be right at the same time. It’s the gunslinger in us. “There’s room for only one opinion in this town, and that’s mine.”
In an AA meeting last week, a friend of mine said, “I often mistake my values and judgments for the Truth.” I think we’re all very nervous about ourselves, and we soothe those anxieties by insisting we harbor our beliefs because they are “true” in terms of reality or fact. If our views are right, then views that differ from ours are wrong. We even feel led to convince each other of such verdicts.
We mistake our opinions for facts. We also don’t know how to coexist with divergent perspectives. Even our language reflects this adversarial thinking. People have “opposing viewpoints” and “conflicting opinions.” From the get-go, we’re opponents in a boxing ring. Starting out as adversaries doesn’t bode well for discussions between husband and wife, parent and teenager, or any other duo. Pretty soon everyone will be blaming everyone else for being wrong, and dedicated to proving it.
I think we all need lots of reassurance, and we all find reassurance hard to give. It takes enormous effort to put our defenses on the back burner and encourage the other person. And getting both parties to do it at the same time? It’s a wonder our relationships survive. Many times Joe and I have tried to talk to each other about a prickly thing, each of us trying to choose our words wisely, but then I interpret something he said in the light of my own defensiveness, and immediately I stop being willing to reassure and become devoted to proving him wrong. Many times I have carefully used “I” words but he heard those blaming “You” words, and we wound up in the boxing ring again.
But I’ve learned that if I work at it, I can suspend my commitment to being right just a little bit more. We human beings respond well to loving reassurance that what we feel and think is important. I’ve got to give that reassurance if I want to get it. I’ve got to model it in my own behavior. I’m talking with someone I care about, for Pete’s sake. You’d think it would be easy to remember that affection even when we’re in conflict. But no. I’m too busy mistaking my opinions for facts again.
Joe and I get the best results out of our “discussions” if we give each other plenty of strokes, like admitting I am overreacting, admitting I am overly worried about myself and forgetting to think about him, admitting my flaws and my vulnerable feelings, admitting my love, my ignorance, and my desire to understand. It’s hard work, being loving, isn’t it?
About the photo: Yes, it isn't a crow; it's a blue jay. But it's eyeballing a crow, a warm crow, just out of camera range.