"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
December 19, 2008

Unlearning Theology

Quite a while back, Paul at One for the Road asked me to elaborate on “unlearning the habit of being right.” Wanting to be right, to win the argument, to be acknowledged as having the best ideas is, more than anything else, a curse. It’s like being hardwired for pain, both self-inflicted and imposed on […]

Quite a while back, Paul at One for the Road asked me to elaborate on “unlearning the habit of being right.”

Wanting to be right, to win the argument, to be acknowledged as having the best ideas is, more than anything else, a curse. It’s like being hardwired for pain, both self-inflicted and imposed on others. For me, it is an imprecation with a complex origin.

Personality tests and life experiences have reminded me that this is a perpetual “growth opportunity” (as the dreary businessspeakers like to put it). It’s not something I have mastered, so I write with a degree of trepidation and diffidence.

No doubt being a youngest child (by many years) played some role. I grew up to be a hesitant and cautious speaker, not prepared to make my thoughts public unless I had carefully scrutinised them first. Of course, that makes objections and criticisms harder to take, because you can’t help but feel attacked in a way that would not matter so much if your words were more provisional and less anxiously chosen.

School didn’t help much. Sure, there were opportunities to speak in formal ways – public speaking and debating. But, in my school, being captain of the debating team carried as much kudos as being good at knitting and, for a guy, the same level of “suspicion.” Mine was not a school that encouraged free thinking and the open exchange of ideas in a collegial environment. It was a school that trained the sons and daughters of builders and labourers to be clerical workers, tradesmen and housewives. How I ever wound up there remains a mystery to me and that I ever got out with an semblance of sanity remains a point of deep gratitude and amazement.

Of course, the darker shadow of my school years was the spectre of racism. I wasn’t especially big, or strong as a young kid, which made it hard to avoid fights. Towards the end of my high school years I cultivated the persona of someone who was violent, unhinged and unpredictable (at least two of those were true). But, in my younger (and smaller) years I wasn’t able to do that. Thankfully (or so I though at the time) I quickly learnt that words could hurt in ways that fists couldn’t and from a safer distance. Although I used physical violence more as a threat and bluff, verbal violence was established pattern.

Be yourself, is the mantra,. But for most of the first thirty years of my life it was a myth. Being someone else always seemed a more effective (and safer) strategy. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that when I moved countries it became easier to be myself and in some ways, easier to make friends. Context matters.

It was that experience of being in a different place that made me think hard, really hard, about the ways I used language. My rhetorical strategies, acquired both as a means of survival and as a way of “fitting in” had to go.

One of the problems with church is that the perceptions we form of each other (and especially of those in leadership) are so piecemeal and asymmetric, often built up from small fragments of conversations (as well as hearsay and observation). The problem that created for me was training for ministry in a system that worshipped the cult of leadership. Being a good leader meant having authority and being authoritative means being right – doesn’t it?

I don’t know and in a way, I don’t really care. I’m not in that world anymore and not about to return to it. Leadership is not a game I play; so I’m not inclined to spend time defining it.

Which brings me back to the curse of being “right.” These days I’m much more interested in being honest that in being right. That means paying more attention to where one stands, in relation to the conversation, rather than the outcome of it. Good conversations matter more than winning strategies. I’m not jealous of the pyrrhic victories of those who would rather shut down other talkers than let ideas form and develop. What I want, most of all to resist, is the sordid temptation ot change my interpretation of reality for the sake of popularity or approval.

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Duncan 16 years ago

I resonate with much of your upbringing Fernando – being one of the youngest in a large family and being a creative in a country school.

I suspect that ‘being right’ is accentuated as a tendency by any education system or social system that punishes ‘being wrong’.

As you say, we often base our assumptions about other on small fragments of conversation. If we’re quick to judge by what a person first says, we miss the long term journey of ideas that we can all engage with.

We do need models of conversation that help us explore what we’re thinking and perhaps why we’re thinking, how we got to where we are now, and where we’re exploring further.

Donald 16 years ago

I have always looked at writing or debate (argument) as a means to find the truth not the assumption of truth. This is more along the lines of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. I understand that many people learn to debate like sophists, in other words the purpose of the debate is to win the argument, prove you are right and so on. It appears that you have come to see it like the great dialectics.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Duncan – yes I think punishing “wrongness” is a big factor. Part of the problem is an educational system that treats provisionality as final.

In an odd way I think that’s why a lot of folks struggle with being creative, dramatic and funny. Each of those involves and in fact requires us to make mistakes – to try things that don’t fly. How many people get into the rut of not telling jokes, because that’s better than telling them badly?

Donald – Yes indeed. I suspect the “win” strategy gets shrill because it carries with it the need to justify oneself frequently and “objectively.”

Dan Morehead 15 years ago

Thanks for this…I appreciated your words and honesty.

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