A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Being Wrong Is Being Alive

The distance you feel from those around you should trouble you no more than your distance from the farthest stars. RILKE Letters To A Young Poet

One last extract from Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error by Kathryn Schulz. Here she quotes Philip Roth:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be ... and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you're with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misrepresentation. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we are alive: we're wrong. PHILIP ROTH American Pastoral

That's how we know we are alive: we're wrong. I wonder if anyone feels the same surge of recognition on reading this as I do? The number of times I have 'got people wrong', and have had to revise my opinion because of a particular bias, prejudice or prejudgement. Sometimes it's hard to read another's mind, hard to come to a properly informed and meditated opinion about someone: so we rely on snap judgements and gut instincts which may be way off the mark (though not always).

And, conversely, no wonder we ourselves often feel unappreciated, misrepresented and misunderstood: for other people have the same problem with us. How easy is it for them to divine our innermost thoughts and feelings, to plunge into our souls? No, not very easy. It's amazing we ever manage to communicate at all. But communicate we do - maybe haphazardly, maybe inadequately, maybe in trial and error: yet always with fresh hope in making that human, empathic connection.   


Ruth said...


That means surge of recognition!

This quote from Roth knocks me out. I feel this all the time. It's a wonder we can communicate at all. For one thing, I can barely understand my own mind! We're so quick to contemplate what we are going to say when the other person is done talking. We don't even listen! The nuances that are there, if we would just read them like runes.

And so true about the opposite, as you say. Nothing hurts me more than being labeled and kept in a box of my previous behaviors and mistakes! Especially if I've been working hard on something, then to be categorized as if I have made no progress is a killer.

We have to let people be new every day. And we have to recognize that most people are doing the best they can with what they've got. And they feel just as inadequate as I do, so what they say may not be really what they feel.

I knew I should read some Philip Roth.

Great stuff, Robert.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, yes, yes - absolutely. I think reading novels and poetry can give us (almost uniquely)this access into and empathy with the thoughts and feelings and deep spirit of others.

I've read a couple of Roth's and he's good, very good.

The Solitary Walker said...

PS And blogging too - at its best!

Bonnie said...

To imagine that we can assess, size-up, or know a person based on a conversation, or an action is such hubris. It takes time for the flower of who we/they are to unfold, release its beautful perfume, reveal its many layers ... and yet we all do this. I think it is a bit of an old survival mechanism - making quick, conscious and unconscious evaluations about who a person is -trying to assess if they are in some way 'dangerous' or have some hidden agenda - our ancestors would have had to do this to stay alive. Now we have the luxury of time (usually) where we can withold judgment and let the person reveal themself at their pace.

I think Schulz and Roth have it right when they say we usually get it wrong ... and that is not such a bad thing ... once conscious of it we are forced to really pay attention. Yet we (I) encounter so many who believe that if THEY think it, it must be right.

I have put Schulz' book on my list of books to purchase - your reviews here make it a must have!

jan said...

How comforting(strangely) it feels to read this today. Whilst at the same time being extremely scarey and takes me to a very lonely place.

Ruth your words about being labelled really strike me - I could have written them! I love this idea of letting people be new everyday. Also letting myself be new would be a breakthrough.

Another book to add to my to read list.

Ruth said...

Robert, Garrison Keillor has a nice summary of several of Philip Roth's novels in his Writer's Almanac today:

It's here.

Amanda said...

this post reminds me of a saying by don miguel ruiz, who wrote the book the 4 agreements. his main point is that we humans are all domesticated creatures who learn by example from our elders who learn from their elders and on and on. and what we learn is to make assumptions about others, to believe we understand others' intentions. and as roth says, 99% of the time we don't know their intentions. we project our own inner workings onto other.

ruiz' 4 agreements are: 1) be impeccable with your word, 2) don't take anything personally, 3) don't make assumptions and 4) always do your best.

thank you for this very thought-provoking post.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Robert. Yes, I feel a surge of recognition. Isn't that amazing, though, really? Is that surge wrong?

I think we could go even further. We don't even know ourselves as well as we might think. Self deception begins with thinking there is some "self" to begin with. But the harder I've looked for that "self" the harder it has become to know. Buddhist scholars and meditators who've probed this further than I have will deny the existence of an independently existing permanent "self."

If we delude ourselves about ourselves, then what can we know of others?

Tramp said...

It's this that often makes me reluctant to communicate, knowing that I will make mistakes. I must know that I should set off on the adventure even though the path is unclear, the weather forecast doubtful and the destination undetermined.

More Than Meets the I said...

There's a surge of recognition, when I find myself reading people who could be reading my mind!!! I agree with Ruth on labelling and the need on our part to be more lenient to what others say (as it may not be really what they feel). Bonnie is right when she mentions the survival mechanism: I would call it our defensive mechanism, but this already presupposes that we are being attacked by others (who always get us wrong). Rilke's parallel of stars and humans in terms of distance is rather pessimistic, isn't it?

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks to everyone for responding to this post.

Ruth, Bonnie, jan - yes, letting people be new every day, allowing them to reveal themselves slowly - what a generous, rewarding and exciting human prospect ... and thanks Ruth also for your link to Philip Roth.

Amanda - those 'agreements' by Ruiz are certainly tenets to hold in one's heart every day ...

Dan, yes, if one goes a few steps further back, then the very idea of a 'self' and consequently the 'self' of others comes under scrutiny, as both you and I know from our interest in Buddhism ...

Tramp - mistakes are the price one pays for casting security and convention to the wind. But the price is a learning adventure ...

More Than Meets The I - I don't think Rilke's observation about the distance between human beings is necessarily pessimistic. I think he's being realistic - but also saying: that sense of alienation need not be an awful thing. And, after all, the stars shine so brightly, don't they? Smetimes they seem so close you could almost reach out and touch them.