The Unbearable Rightness of Being

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Published:
March 29, 2018

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One of the oddest, most entrenched and even perverse characteristics of humans is our deep-felt need to be right. Perhaps it starts in early childhood when we first recognize, albeit dimly, the huge gap between our size, freedom, but most of all, competence, compared to our parents. I see this, for example, in my 10-year-old grandson, who gloats when he wins a board game and makes statements (that make adults smile) like “I’m really good at this.” And you know he’s not. Sometimes, when playing with little kids, adults throw the game. Being wrong can equate to being a loser. And we want our kids to grow up with healthy self-esteem.

Hopefully, most of us do grow up and have a reasonably realistic self-esteem. But it seems to me, from life experience, that the need to be right lingers and pops up continually and unexpectedly, like a personal, mental game of whack-a-mole. Except that, too often, we not only don’t want to “whack” our hubris down, we don’t recognize it at all. Can you even remember the last time you knew you were wrong about something? Because, if you knew you were wrong, you would change your belief. So you might have a long nagging worry that a belief was questionable, but to actually hold a known error is difficult to resolve with our internal morality. We would have the self-image of a liar, which, for most, would be intolerable.

But, quite ironically, we quickly and easily admit that we’ve been wrong many times. Just not presently, and no longer. It’s odd that we would somehow realize how many mistakes we overcame in the past but struggle to admit that there might be a whole lot more of them in the future. Do we think we’ve “arrived” at an all-correct belief system? And the “unbearable” word in my title has two parts. First is the unbearability of holding tight to such a counter-factual perspective. This takes denial and cognitive dissonance. But second is the (potentially insufferable) ripple effect of our rightness on others if it morphs into smug self-delusional pride in how factually and morally justified we really are. We’ve all experienced people who seem to so qualify. But, can we ever detect it in ourselves? Well, maybe a bit when we were young and naïve. But these days we’re usually right. Right?

To the extent that this apparently universal blind spot has social implications, its negativity is magnified within a religious subculture. With some religions structured — both doctrinally and socially — in ways that are particularly problematic. And Adventism so qualifies, I assert. Ironic for a group that was founded on a mistake.

Historically, Adventism grew in the 19th century within a broader Christian culture. And one of the features of SDA evangelism in those days included trying to demonstrate doctrinal positions that were righter than the alternative denominations. In today’s world I think there is a much greater emphasis within Adventism on grace and recognizing that salvation is an unmerited gift. But a continuing strain of “rightness” in SDA culture remains solidly present and has been a social and doctrinal focus, visible and usually active, in every Adventist context I’ve witnessed. I might even speculate that people who have a greater-than-average affinity for being right get attracted to Adventism in disproportionate numbers. That’s harsh and unprovable. Maybe it’s just the “unbearable” part of people who project how much they enjoy having the high moral ground. But I’m guilty too; we all are. I suspect it’s a foundational component to our humanness.

The problem also shows up sometimes when people leave the church. If SDAism is the “truth,” then it’s not hard to feel lied to if you change your view and conclude that it’s not. And the anger might be significant. People can even feel like they were made fools of. Chumps. As if there was some institutional conspiracy to con them. Perhaps the seminary has a class exegeting  P.T. Barnum, titled: “Adventist Evangelism: There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Obviously not. Leadership is not populated with con-artists but with true believers. Yet, for someone who leaves, the psychological reaction can be out of proportion. Why? I think it is in part because we have been culturally conditioned, as humans, to be deeply embarrassed at our errors. And if you have invested years in a position, like many lifelong SDA Christians have, seeing flaws of any kind risks loss of face as well as fear of a slippery slope. See, if this is wrong, then what else about my beliefs might also be wrong? It’s scary. We not only don’t want to get close to that slope, but we can even shoot the messengers who suggest the possibility of error.

One significant step in mitigating this inclination is to consider two different models1 of dealing with our errors: pessimistic and optimistic. I’m suggesting we tend to naturally gravitate to a pessimistic model where our screw-ups are damaging. Situationally perhaps, but more fundamentally to our self-esteem. Conversely, an optimistic model first recognizes that we all make mistakes, continually. But without mistakes there would be no learning and no growth. We have been so deeply acculturated to hide, deny, minimize, and ultimately learn nothing from our mistakes that it can be very difficult to reframe this lifelong inevitability as something positive. But the benefits of doing so are plentiful and freeing. It becomes easier and easier to jettison unwarranted ideas. We become more curious about our world (what else don’t I see right?). And, not least, we might set down a load of guilt.

One of the on-going struggles in the Adventist doctrinal universe is the idea of human perfectibility. And one unfortunate misunderstanding — all too frequent — occurs when we conflate being wrong generally, with being morally wrong. Have you ever been concerned that, if you were wrong about some doctrine, then you were at risk for salvation? Or at risk for growing into perfection? Many have, I contend. But if, foundationally, we abandon a pessimistic model of being wrong, we also can (finally) realize that we will always carry some wrong ideas. It’s a consequence of not having a God’s-Eye View. And we can let go of a distorted perception of perfectibility that produces self-deception, denial, and entrenchment into positions.

 

Notes & References:
Kathryn Schultz, Being Wrong (New York, HarperCollins, 2010), Chapter 2.

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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