Monday, 14 June 2010

Being wrong as a spiritual practice

Failure! Oh, that is a bad word. "You failed" seems like one of the most deflating things we can hear. When I was a laboratory scientist, failure was part of the game. Everything was an experiment. Sometimes things were successful and sometimes they failed. That's just how it works.

In other parts of our lives, trying and failing just seems much worse than not trying at all.

Over at Ministrare, my colleague Sean Dennison wrote recently about human fallibility and forgiveness.  He describes something that all of us probably see in organizations (and feel in ourselves) too often - the fear of making mistakes:
I’ve watched people, committees, and whole congregations become paralyzed by this anxiety.   I’ve seen ideas that were destroyed by an almost compulsive need to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong and try to figure out how to avoid them all.
His take on it is that Unitarians are more afraid to make mistakes than others and that this comes down to theology. He chalks this up to the Unitarian move away from certain aspects of Christianity:
when we moved away from orthodox Christian theologies of sin and redemption, we gave up the stories, theology, and practices of forgiveness as well.
I could not agree more that the fear of making mistakes is paralyzing. It is destructive of trust and prevents the formation of truly authentic relationships within congregations. It prevents us from growing and learning because growth always means stretching and trying something new.

I’m not convinced, though, that a strong theology of sin makes anyone less susceptible to this sort of thing. I haven't seen a lot of conservative Christians coming up to me lately to say "sorry - I was wrong." Quite the contrary. So if orthodox Christian belief is a key to being more willing to be wrong, there must not be many true orthodox Christians - ones who really, really believe the teachings of their faith (and that is certainly very possible.)

I'm not even sure that this fear of mistakes is so much a particularly Unitarian (or non-Christian) thing as it is a 21st century, mean old work-a-day world thing. It is part of the materialistic tool kit required for “success” in the regular world. People have bosses and want to get ahead. You get ahead by being right - even if you're wrong. People don’t just drop that ethos when they walk into church (unfortunately).

A minister - or anyone in a position of influence - has some opportunity to change that at least a bit. The most effective approach is modeling. If I admit when I'm wrong - often and loudly - and show that the world does not come to a sudden end, it may make members of my congregation more willing to do the same. And, if we can accept that failure is not a disaster, we become more willing to try new things. So what if it doesn't work? We'll never know unless we try.  (One more experienced colleague advised me to make deliberate mistakes and then admit them!)

Sean's post got me thinking about something else though. I'm very focused on spiritual practice at the moment and especially thinking about non-traditional practices.

We know that needing to be right is destructive of relationships and communities. We know it makes us timid and defensive. What if - as a spiritual practice - we make a point of finding something we are (or were) wrong about and admitting it. First, admit it ourselves, but under the condition that we are going to be accepting and gentle about it. "I put too much salt in the hummus." And my response: "So what! The Queen's not coming for dinner tonight!" 

And then maybe admit it to a person you trust. Start small: "you know, it turns out I was wrong about dolphins just being gay sharks.* Oops!" See what happens...  If it's not a disaster, then maybe we can learn that we don't actually have to be right all the time.

One of the central notions of spiritual growth is putting aside the stuff that distracts us from authenticity, connection, and wholeness. It's not about creating something new, but about cultivating and revealing what is already present - although fragile or obscured.  If we learn that have to be right all the time, maybe that helps us to put aside the overriding ego thing just a bit

For this week, I think I'll give this a try and find something every day to be wrong about!  Anyone else willing to give it a go?

To begin for today, I was wrong to buy that Tesco 'value' paper shredder. Although it was cheap, it keeps jamming all the time. I should have spent more to get something more reliable.

Oh, I was wrong ignoring the half and half brown and green composting rule too. the compost is getting stinky.

And while I'm at it, the readings I chose for the service today were no better than just OK...

Now, let's see if the sky falls!

*Glee reference


  1. Someone sent me this quote in response to the blog post above. It is from the Boston Globe
    "Of all the things we’re wrong about, this view of error might well top the list. As ashamed as we may feel of our mistakes, they are not a byproduct of all that’s worst about being human. On the contrary: They’re a byproduct of all that’s best about us. We don’t get things wrong because we are uninformed and lazy and stupid and evil. We get things wrong because we get things right. The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to err is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent."

  2. Thanks for this, Andy.

    I was intrigued by a discussion I heard on Radio (5, I think) last week, about the drop in the number of science graduates and scientists in Parliament. The suggestion was that it's because being a good scientist is being able to admit that you were wrong - whereas that's death to a politician.

    Made me think. Made me think that if we banned Arts graduates from Government, we might have more humility in our politicians. Oh well, I can dream.

  3. "If I admit when I'm wrong..."

    Well, there's a first time for everything.... ;-)

    When I was younger I used to tell people they were "wrong" quite often, because I was so sure I knew what was right. For some reason they used to find this irritating, though I couldn't work out why...

    So instead of saying "you're wrong" I began saying "i disagree", even though I continued to feel, deep-down, i was right of course. And the interesting thing is a whole different kind of dialogue would often ensue and I would discover that perhaps I wasn't quite so right and they weren't quite so wrong after all, indeed perhaps there were whole other truths that neither of us had considered...

    It made me more popular too.

  4. Really good blog Andy. Hope you don't mind if I quote some of it in a service I'm doing on making mistakes.
    I can also use the disallowed goal from the last England match LOL.