Lessons sometimes come from unusual places. Like the words of the fictional Inspector Gamache in Louise Penny’s various mystery novels like Still Life and A Fatal Grace. At one point in the former, he shares the four most important phrases that lead us to wisdom:
1) I don’t know.
2) I need help.
3) I’m sorry.
4) I was wrong.
1) I don’t know: And I know I don’t know it. And I feel no shame about it, unless it’s something I should have known and refused to do the work. And since I don’t know it, that leads me to number 2.
2) I need help: That’s what plumbers, computer technicians, car mechanics, therapists, friends, etc. are for. If I know what I don’t know and what I need to know, I’ll either learn it or will look for someone who does. If someone asks me to write the definitive article on movement in Orff Schulwerk, I could fake it, but why? Simply pass it on to brilliant Orff Schulwerk dance teachers I know. The follow-up question to “I need help,” is “from whom?” And then ask.
3) I’m sorry. We all cast a shadow in this life and end up hurting, disappointing, insulting, betraying at least some of the many people who cross our paths. (Or all the people at least some of the time?) Whether it be from ignorant remarks, self-defense or purposeful malice, “I’m sorry” is the courageous response that let’s folks know that perhaps we’ve learned something, eaten some of the blame and asked for forgiveness.
4) I was wrong. Winston Churchill famously said “ I have had to eat my own words many times and I find it a very nourishing diet.” This is the more muscular version of “I’m sorry” and can lead to the same kind of self-forgiveness and healing of shame that we all could use more of. Gamache also mentions a variant, “I might be wrong, but…” and I love the way that this doesn’t negate one’s firm convictions in the truth you feel you’re telling, but leaves just enough of a sliver of doubt that another’s contrary truth can enter the conversation. It takes the talk one step down from the arrogance that halts discussion.
As any reader of my own words well knows, I often feel compelled to carry these brilliant thoughts beyond just one’s own growth into the discourse of our time. If I mention names and their corresponding political party, that can be a conversation-stopper, but why beat around the bush? Or better yet, see the movie Where’s My Roy Cohn? about the man who wrote the modern-day Machiavellian playbook that defines some of our current national character. His anti-Gamache advice?
1) Think you know it all. Act as if you know something about the things you know absolutely nothing about. Never, ever, admit you don’t know something. That’s weak.
2) Never ask for help. It’s weak.
3) Never, ever say you’re sorry. It’s weak to admit that you made a mistake or hurt somebody.
4) Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say you’re wrong. It’s weak and it will be used against you in court.
Connect the dots, my friends. The true divide in this country is not Right against Left but two contrary opinions on what constitutes strength and courage and what shows cowardice and weakness. In my world, vulnerability is strength and all of Gamache’s four pillars require courage. They are the things that bring us to our true character.
In the other world, I see nothing but weak cowards hiding behind denial, lies, refusal to face both the flaws and the potential goodness in their character. How can we hold a meaningful conversation across that divide?
I’m sorry I don’t know how to say this better. Though I might be wrong, I could use some help.