I was just trying to help. Honest.
A few years ago I was talking with a friend who said, “I don’t know why I get so many ear infections. I’m really getting tired of it.”
“It might be because of the vigorous way you blow your nose,” I replied. Which was something I’d noticed.
I went on to explain how there are canals between the nasal passages and the ears (Eustachian tubes, I learned later) and that if you blow your nose with too much force, mucus can travel into those tubes, where it’s trapped and becomes infected.
“Oh, so you must think my head is just full of holes,” my friend replied.
“What? No, of course not.”
She then dismissed my claim as the product of a vivid imagination.
People are also reading…
That’s not how she phrased her dismissal. Her words were a little more ... colorful.
I should have just dropped it. But as it happened, I went to see my doctor a couple of days later. In his examination room was a big, colorful poster depicting the inner workings of the human head. He confirmed everything I’d told my friend.
So when I saw her again, I told her what he told me.
She replied, “It’s really important to you to be right, isn’t it?”
I did drop the matter then, for good. You got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em …
But though I shut my mouth, I thought, of course it’s important to me to be right. Isn’t it to everyone? Why would anyone want to be wrong?
Well, there’s a whole can of worms, and I only have a third of this page.
What she meant, of course, was that it was important that I be seen as right; that I let everyone know that I’m right.
I realize you’re only hearing my side of this. But honest, I just wanted her to stop having ear infections.
I also realize now that there was something in my approach that was offensive. Both conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson tell us that facts don’t care about feelings — but people sure do.
I think about this incident from time to time, along with other conversations — including some in which I was terribly wrong, wrong enough that an apology was required.
I’ve known a few people — I’ll bet you have, too — who had a great deal of difficulty admitting their errors, as if being wrong represented some monumental moral or mental failure, rather than a simple human mistake.
There’s a memorable passage in the book “I Alone Can Fix This” by journalists Carol Leonning and Philip Rucker; in it, then-President Trump confronts then-Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley about his public renunciation of his unwitting participation in the notorious march on Lafayette Square.
“Why did you apologize?” Trump asked angrily. “Apologies are a sign of weakness.”
“Mr. President,” the devout Catholic replied, “not where I come from they’re not. The way I was brought up is, when you make a mistake you apologize and you get it over with.”
The concept was beyond Trump’s understanding.
But I’m with Milley. Admitting fault requires courage. It requires maturity. Not everyone possesses the requisite character.
Ultimately, it’s liberating. Honest, it feels good to ’fess up. It puts things right with the world.
And it shouldn’t be so hard. Most of us navigate a complicated world with five limited senses and faulty brains that can be fooled in a variety of frustrating or entertaining ways. It would be the height of arrogance for any of us to assert that we are always, always right about everything.
It’s also kind of obnoxious.
Last week I watched video excerpts of angry voters haranguing members of the Maricopa County, Ariz., election board, accusing them of being corrupt. They did so with no evidence of corruption but an abundance of conviction — and despite the fact that most of these officials would have preferred the same outcome as their critics.
I don’t think it’s adequate to claim that they were just disappointed because their side lost. No, they’ve been misled by untrustworthy operators, convinced that lies are true.
Social scientists tell us that the more deeply we invest ourselves in falsehoods, the more difficult it is to renounce them — even when we begin to suspect that we’ve been bamboozled.
But we must.
It is important to me to be right. I want to believe things that are true. I don’t want to believe things that are not true.
But knowing the truth is a continuing project, one that requires the ability to listen and learn; the willingness to correct the course when one’s ship drifts; and a large dollop of humility.