perfectly incomplete: on BEING WRONG (Kathryn Schulz)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Every single day we get something wrong. We assume, we misinterpret, we misconstrue, we fail to hear, we post deliberate, blatant untruths somewhere within the forest of the internet, we (conversely, with no intent to harm) confuse our facts, we accuse, we attack, we (in our desire to defend ourselves) polish and sharpen our narrow rationales. We leave others scrambling for cover.

Welcome to Humanity.

In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (Ecco), Kathryn Schulz, a daring and intelligent writer, tackles wrongness. Where it comes from. How it is institutionalized (and broken). How our response to it defines us. Fear it, she says, and we lose our ability to learn and grown. Accept it, even embrace it, and we live more intellectually elegant lives.

Nested with the history of science, democracies, philosophy, adventures in love and transformation, Shakespeare and Proust, Being Wrong is an exquisite book. It is, in fact, a page turner; I read its 300-plus pages over the course of a single day and one early morning. I read for the ideas and the anecdotes. I read for the prose, which cradles clarity, nuance, and intrigue with seeming ease.

And I read for selfish reasons. I read because, from time to time, a reader will write to me about something I have written—words like an arrow slung.

Once, in an essay, I infuriated a reader by describing Philadelphia as having a European glow in October (I was a rich, Main Line soccer mother of many apparently snooty children, she declared, in her comment—the only part of the accusation that is in fact true is that I live in a tiny two-bedroom house not far from the Main Line tracks. Perhaps Philadelphia does not have a European glow.)

Once, in an 800-word story about the present-day culture and ambiance of Bethlehem, PA, and our ideas of home, I upset a reader for not mentioning the name of one of her husband's distant relatives who figured in Bethlehem's history—her displeasure communicated to me through both an Op/Ed letter and in person, when she found me at a bookstore.

Once I deeply angered a reader for mentioning one cemetery and not both cemeteries along a pedestrian trail, and indeed I might have mentioned both, and I was sorry that I hadn't. It was an oversight, a wrongness glimpsed in hindsight—and learned from.

And once I surprised a reader by mentioning her husband (who had passed away) and my search (along South Street) for his last name. My conversations with those who remembered this artist had led me to conclude that his name was Bud Franklin. Indeed, as I later learned, his name was (Bud) Franklin Drake. The artist's widow had called to let me know the truth. Our phone conversation led to email conversations led to a gift led to a friendship—a story I later told here.

The history of us, Schulz teaches, is the history of error. Of assumptions sliding beneath the weight of new assumptions. Of rigid ideals yielding to debated possibilities. Of "fact" becoming footnote. No one wants to make mistakes (I am so very mad at me when I make mistakes, just ask my poor editors), and yet all of us do. But there is hope, Schulz suggests, for those who choose to grow through errors, to let down their guard, to speak in the measured maybe as opposed to the caustic, self-righteous declaration, to make room for an apology, as Ruth made room for my apology.
... whatever damage can arise from erring pales in comparison to the damage that arises from our fear, dislike, and denial of erring. This fear acts of a kind of omnipurpose coagulant, hardening heart and mind, chilling our relationships with other people, and cooling our curiosity about the world.


MissKelly said...

I was tickled to see your mention of Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong. I too found it worthy of praise. Whenever I try to describe this book, I find it nearly impossible. The inside of an abalone is full of colors but the color is indescribable. Being Wrong is a synthesis of many fields of study: physiology, philosophy, sociology, literature, history, and psychology. Her frequent use of endnotes and footnotes could have been a bit too academic; they are not. It feels as if there were so many things she just wanted to tell us. And at times, she’s just plain funny. Her passion for “wrongology” made this book a thought provoking conversation.

Kathryn Schultz changed the way I think. She showed how wrongness is a human construct. We live a life which includes unfortunate consequences; feeling wrong adds a layer of pain to those experiences. Dogs don’t dwell on the wrongness of biting a porcupine. A hawk doesn’t wonder what it did wrong when its meal got away. Minimizing our negative feelings of being wrong can lessen our shame, embarrassment, frustration and heartbreak when unwished-for events happen.

Beth, because you wrote of this book, I hope others read it as well.

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