The Courage … To Be Wrong

I didn’t discover the courage to be wrong until I was married.

Oh, I’m sure I was wrong lots of times before that. My parents corrected me many times. My sister pointed out my wrongness without timidity. But I fought off being wrong rather aggressively. After all, I had my father as a model. He was fond of saying, “When have I ever been wrong?” His lack of humility was compounded by his evasiveness. My sister and I would carefully watch for his mistakes so we’d be armed. Then we would attack him after he asked that question and itemize the times he was wrong. He would then artfully manipulate our evidence to obfuscate the facts. This could make for some heated arguments with my mother irritatedly telling us to stop it.

Living with housemates in college also presented me with opportunities to be corrected for being wrong. I’ve been fortunate to live with people that I got along with fairly well so we didn’t get into the right/wrong struggle too much. Or maybe I was compliant enough not to get into too many arguments with them.

The first time I had to deal seriously with being wrong was with a former partner I lived with before entering seminary. She was clear that I was wrong about the way I didn’t express my feelings. Because I loved her and wanted to please her, I agreed she was right and I was wrong. I strived to be who she wanted me to be, going to different therapeutic groups trying to fix myself. I asked her to marry me several times and when our third engagement period ended without getting to the altar, I suggested we separate. I didn’t have a problem expressing those feelings.

Intimate relationships can amplify differences. And the closer people get to each other, the more intense those differences can be. The closer we are, the more vulnerable we are. That vulnerability can also make those differences that much harder to deal with. “How can you say you love me and still leave dirty dishes on the counter!”

One of the joys of marrying Philomena was discovering that the way I expressed my emotions wasn’t a problem for her. This was a great learning for me, discovering a new constellation of issues in our relationship very different from my previous ones.

But, at times, I was still wrong in Philomena’s eyes.

What has made the most difference when this happens, is cultivating courage. In the face of her disapproval and in the certainty or uncertainty of my own position, sensing the danger to the well-being of our relationship, I take a breath and strive to be present to what is happening. If I feel discouraged, shamed, or threatened, I strive to stay put and not attack or run away. I also resist the urge to defend myself. For me, courage requires examining the flood of chemicals being pumped out by the amygdala, honoring their primitive intention to protect my body from harm, and allowing them to calm down before acting.

Amygdala driven conversations tend to end badly. But courageously pausing until I am able to remember my love and care for my partner before continuing the conversation can make a world of difference. The solution to most relationship conflicts will not be found in establishing who is right or who is wrong. It will be found in comprehending what each party is feeling, then examining what unmet universal human needs are driving those feelings in that moment. Once we both understand the needs that motivate our feelings and actions, we can, with care for each others needs, explore ways to resolve the conflict.

When my focus moves away from being right or wrong but toward respect, caring and the desire to understand, a foundation for trust and mutual commitment can be built and reinforced. That takes courage. The courage to look at one’s own reactivity and the sources of it. The courage to attend to the hormonal soup sloshing around in the brain stimulating that reactivity and to question its impulsive conclusions. The courage to put aside temporarily one’s truth claims to better comprehend the other and their claims.

The peace we seek in the world requires us to have the courage to nurture and to develop peace in our hearts, minds and spirits.