“My Bad or Yours?” by Mark W. Harris – June 1, 2008

“My Bad or Yours?” Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – June 1, 2008

Call to Worship – Philippians 4: 8

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Reading – “In Front of Your Nose” by George Orwell” (1946)

Many people … are capable of holding [two] totally contradictory ideas in their heads at a single moment. This . . . habit of mind . . . is extremely widespread, and perhaps always has been. Bernard Shaw, in the preface to Androcles and the Lion, cites as [an] example the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which starts off by establishing the descent of Joseph, father of Jesus, from Abraham. In the first verse, Jesus is described as ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham’, and the genealogy is then followed up through fifteen verses: then, in the next verse but one, it is explained that as a matter of fact Jesus was not descended from Abraham, since he was not the son of Joseph. This, says Shaw, presents no difficulty to a religious believer. . . Medically, I believe, this manner [of] thinking is called schizophrenia: at any rate, it is the power of holding simultaneously two beliefs which cancel out. Closely allied to it is the power of ignoring facts which are obvious and unalterable, and which will have to be faced sooner or later. It is especially in our political thinking that these vices flourish. Let me take a . . . sample. . . of plain, unmistakable facts being shirked by people who in another part of their mind are aware to those facts.

(Among the examples he lists is this one:) Hong Kong. For years before the war everyone with knowledge of Far Eastern conditions knew that our position in Hong Kong was untenable and that we should lose it as soon as a major war started. This knowledge, however, was intolerable, and government after government continued to cling to Hong Kong instead of giving it back to the Chinese. Fresh troops were even pushed into it, with the certainty that they would be uselessly taken prisoner, a few weeks before the Japanese attack began. The war came, and Hong Kong promptly fell — as everyone had known all along that it would do. . .

There is no use in multiplying examples. The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

When one looks at the all-prevailing schizophrenia of democratic societies, the lies that have to be told for vote-catching purposes, the silence about major issues, the distortions of the press, it is tempting to believe that in totalitarian countries there is less humbug, more facing of the facts. There, at least, the ruling groups are not dependent on popular favour and can utter the truth crudely and brutally. Goering could say ‘Guns before butter’, while his democratic opposite numbers had to wrap the same sentiment up in hundreds of hypocritical words.

Actually, however, the avoidance of reality is much the same everywhere, and has much the same consequences. The Russian people were taught for years that they were better off than everybody else, and propaganda posters showed Russian families sitting down to abundant meals while the proletariat of other countries starved in the gutter. Meanwhile the workers in the western countries were so much better off than those of the U.S.S.R. that non-contact between Soviet citizens and outsiders had to be a guiding principle of policy. Then, as a result of the war, millions of ordinary Russians penetrated far into Europe, and when they return home the original avoidance of reality will inevitably be paid for in frictions of various kinds. The Germans and the Japanese lost the war quite largely because their rulers were unable to see facts which were plain to any dispassionate eye. To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

Sermon – “My Bad or Yours?” Mark W. Harris

There is a story about the Turkish teacher Nasrudin that begins with a scheduled visit by a philosopher who was going to debate an issue with him. But when the philosopher came to his house, he did not find Nasrudin at home. He had forgotten the plan and was off playing board games and telling stories in his teahouse. The philosopher waited some time, and then grew quite angry. Finally he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote, “Stupid Oaf,” across Nasrudin’s door, and stomped away. Soon thereafter Nasrudin came home, saw the writing, and ran off to the philosopher’s house. When the door opened, Nasrudin blurted out his apology. “I completely forgot our appointment. I apologize for not being home. Of course I remembered the appointment as soon as I saw that you had left your name on the door.” What names do you leave on doors? Why is it so hard for us to admit our human fallibility? Why we do we go to the ends of the earth to affirm our beliefs even when there is positive proof that we are in error?

If you were brought up in a Christian tradition, as I was, then you learned many stories where Jesus told his listeners to reflect upon how often they are in error. When the crowd is about to stone the woman taken in adultery, Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Why is it so easy to see someone else’s error, and not our own? Again recall Jesus saying, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye?” Yet it is one thing to mouth these ancient stories, and then actually struggle with how hard it is for each of us to admit that we are wrong, or that a belief we hold to be true is false, or that we don’t even see the biases we have. It is because we are hard-wired for self-justification. We not only want to be right, we assure ourselves that we are right in countless ways and instances. Otherwise the toll on us emotionally would be enormous. So instead of being contrite, we go on the attack telling the aggrieved party why they are wrong and how they actually induced the mistake. Think how hard it is to go to someone and say, “I made a mistake.”

The genesis of this sermon as you can deduce from the title is the phrase “my bad.” This is the current lingo for admitting a mistake. My son Dana says it all the time, and apparently picked it up at school. If he spills the milk, or leaves his portable game system at a baseball field, he will blurt out “my bad”, meaning my mistake. A little more sincere regret, like I am terribly sorry, might be better, but at least this is something. It minimally acknowledges some sense of owning up to a mistake. As you saw in the newsletter, my most vivid example of this new word usage occurred at a local pizzeria. I went in to the shop and ordered a slice of pizza and a side salad. A couple of minutes later the clerk asked me if I wanted to pay, and since he had my lunch all bagged, and I had selected a drink, and even though it seemed quick, I concluded that the slice must have been in the bag. I walked back to my office in the rain only to discover that the bag contained only a salad with no pizza in sight. I was thinking, “stupid oaf.” So I trudged back to the shop, and he immediately recognized me. I was pleased that he acknowledged his own mistake by saying,”My bad.” He give me the slice and I was on my way. We made it a pleasant ending to a small retail mistake. But what if I was driving for miles and discovered the error much later? Or what if he was the kind of clerk who felt I was rushing him, or that he was too busy, and it was management’s fault for not hiring more help. What if he was determined to blame his mistake on someone else because he didn’t want to look bad, or besmirch his own sense of his worth as an outstanding employee.

This problem is discussed in a recent book that was recommended in the New York Times for all the presidential candidates as highly appropriate summer reading. It is called Mistakes Were Made(But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts. The authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson say it all comes down to “cognitive dissonance.” Basically this means that it is difficult for a person to hold two very distinct cognitions, that is ideas, beliefs, or values. If we are trying to manage this we become emotionally uncomfortable, and our very natural response is to find a way to gain some relief from these inconsistent beliefs through a plan of self-justification, so that our world view can be accommodated and placed in balance. A common way for me to do this for many years was with smoking. On the one hand I said “smoking is a terrible thing, and its killing me”, and yet I also said, “I smoke a pack and a half a day.” And so I needed to find a way to justify my smoking or else feel immense guilt. So I reduced my anguish by saying it relieved stress and anxiety; I enjoyed it; It helped me be social; It kept my weight down, and so forth. Of course there is also the plan for quitting eventually, which I employed with some regularity. I used to say to Andrea, “I’ll quit when we have kids.” and she would give me the retort back, “And what do you call Joel?,” my now 28 year old son, who was then 14, but did not have his three younger siblings yet. I got caught in my own trap of self-justification!

Each one of us makes mistakes, but it is difficult for us to learn from them. Tavris and Aronson tells us that because we think of ourselves as smart, moral and right, it becomes darn near impossible for us to admit that we do things that are dumb, immoral or wrong. We see the circumstances or the other as the oaf, but not ourselves. When the milk spills the child will say the milk spilled. It just happened. It is not that I was careless or moved too fast, but it might be called the parents’ fault because we trusted them to pour it and they say, “you knew it was too heavy for me.” The examples are endless. And these are only the trivial and every day occurrences of self-justification. What about the very genesis of the phrase “mistakes were made” which was said in the context of international diplomatic decisions, when millions of lives were at stake. When it was suggested that Henry Kissinger was guilty of war crimes in Vietnam, he simply said “mistakes were made”, thus exonerating himself from the onus of personal responsibility, and placing the decision making in a kind of inevitable slide into oblivion that the administration was a victim of. What if we ever had a politician who could admit personal responsibility in decision making? We wouldn’t know what to do. But this example also shows us how we avoid taking responsibility for actions that turn out to be wrong or harmful. The authors depict George Bush as the poster boy for this refusal to recognize his own mistakes while clinging to a belief that has been widely discredited.

It is hard to believe that we might be wrong, and so we find ways to accommodate even devout beliefs. Years ago when I was researching my hometown of New Salem, I came across a religious sect known as the Millerites. Led by William Miller, they came to believe that the end of the world was coming in 1844. Using the Bible for prognosticating, they decided what the chosen day would be in October. Many of the followers sold their earthly goods, and on the appointed day outfitted themselves in white robes, seemingly appropriate attire for living aloft in the clouds. They proceeded to climb up the local hills, raised their arms heavenward and waited for God to lift them airborne into heaven. And waited. And waited. They were clearly wrong. Do you suppose they admitted the error of their ways? No way. When a date the following year failed to materialize, they simply put the date of the Second Coming into the context of being imminent. They didn’t know exactly when, but they had to always be on alert. Within twenty years they evolved into what we know today as the Seventh Day Adventists. And they are still waiting! Tavris and Aronson talk about a group in their book, who also predicted a date for the end of the world. When this date failed to occur, the group congratulated themselves on being so faithful. They decided that God had bestowed a miracle upon them, and therefore rewarded them and saved the world because of their steadfast belief. We are quick to affirm evidence that supports our view, and slow to believe evidence to the contrary. So if we believe terrorist acts are going to occur, but there is little evidence for them, we simply assert that the terrorists are being ever more clever in their ability to hide their nefarious activities from us.

We find ways to be comfortable with or to justify our beliefs. Let me say though that we need to do this or else we would go completely crazy with self-judging. Take the idea of being green, for instance. A person may be an avid recycler like me on the one hand, but also leave every light on in the house, also like me. I am trying to retrain myself to be more conscious of this, but you can drive yourself and others insane with being right about this with no sense of proportion. A little humility or humor are sometimes needed. Things can and do go wrong, and we can make terrible decisions. The pressure to have more income to add to our meager salaries may lead us to be duped by a sales scheme, and we end up losing out when the check we cashed turns out to be fake. How could I be so stupid we ask? None of us is perfect, and each is vulnerable to seeking self-justifcation for what we do. Ball players take steroids because it gives them what they believe is an extra edge physically, or allow them to return from injuries. Yet look at the difference between those like Jason Giambi of the Yankees who admitted his wrongdoing, and former Red Sox star Roger Clemens who attacks his former trainer for character defamation, lies repeatedly, and tries to unduly influence politicians all to save face. The public would surely have more sympathy if he were to admit his wrong doing and take responsibility for his actions, and yet he makes matters worse by refusing to admit his mistakes. I would say his genetic urge to self-justify has completely lost its monitor of control.

As a parent I notice this especially in child rearing, and find it a crucial aspect of character building. Here is what I experience when I may reprimand a child for an action, such as hitting another with a stick. First, there is an extended explanation of why it happened. We hear all the details that explain why something occurred, but never a simple acknowledgment that what was done was wrong. This is unfortunate, because we may never hear that the act perpetrated by the child was wrong regardless of what led up to it. What ever happened to walking away? Second, there is a justification for the action. The explanation is often portrayed in a manner so that the wrong action seems inevitable, such as the other person was taunting me or making fun of me, or the other hit me first, or that everybody was cheating, and so it somehow makes my acting in this way more acceptable. It is what happens when we see everybody turning right on a no turn on right sign, or everybody speeding, and we say everybody is doing it. Third, and finally, the child, after explaining the gory details, and justifying their actions may finally have to turn and tell the parent why they are wrong. You are not fair to me, or you give them more or favor them. We may tell our parent that they didn’t tell us in enough detail not to do something, or we didn’t know the consequences, and it is really their fault for not doing a better job of informing us. This happens for adults at work, too. We may cloak our own errors or inadequacies in blaming the employer. We say they didn’t give me enough hours or the proper training to do the job.

We all have this innate need to be right, and then this urge to finds ways to affirm that need. Sometimes we need someone else to help us see how we could be happier if we understood how we are working overtime to convince ourselves that this erroneous belief is good even as it is making us feel very unhappy and unappreciated. My Methodist colleague here in town showed me the way. What do we feel if we go through a painful, prolonged process of making a group work? I worked for years to ensure that the Watertown clergy group met, convincing myself that philosophically it was good to have an active clergy group where all the different faiths come together. While good in theory, the truth was that the group did little for the community which did not emanate from my energy, and I was on a different wavelength than most of the group, and thus spent a fair amount of time compromising my integrity. But because I put so much energy into the group, I distorted my perception of it in a positive way, so as to find good things about it, while ignoring the negative. While it is good to accentuate the positive, one also needs a slap in the face of reality sometimes, too. When the Methodist minister moved to town, he attended a couple of meetings of the group, and then he flatly stated, “this is a boring, worthless group.” Why do you bother? The answer was obvious. It was self-justification. I wanted to feel good about this group, even though it was moribund. In a sense I was happier with the group than I should have been because I put so much effort into it. It distorted my sense of reality because I so much wanted it to be a success. This can happen in relationships and jobs, too. When we look in front of our noses we may find that our need to be right about something is wrong, plus it is wasting a lot of our time and energy.

What this all means is that we should get a grip on reality. I should have seen that what I was doing was not making me happy. Sure there was a bit of doing my job, or doing my duty, but what are the limits of that when it comes down to affirming something that is useless or wrong, or wasting my time. This points to the larger truths about life that George Orwell discusses in “In Front of Your Nose.” We all believe things that we know to be untrue, and even when proven wrong, we still try to justify ourselves. From little clergy groups to big bad wars, this is a human predilection that is dangerous to our good spiritual health. Orwell tells us that there is much in modern democratic societies that end up being lies and distortions of truth, and we go along with them. “To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.” Orwell often came back to the theme of the flight from truth. He always said that he had an uncanny ability to face unpleasant truths. The human mind, he thought is capable of holding two contradictory truths, and that it can adjust its memory, and turn and twist the truth so it can become a believable reality. So we might wish to ask ourselves, what do I justify in my mind to make me comfortable, and how often do I ignore what is in front of my nose? We all want to sleep at night. No one wants to be overcome with regrets. It is better to look at our lives, and recall the philosopher from our story, how do we leave our names on the door?

I thought my wife had a profound idea in her sermon last week. She was speaking about Abu Ghraib, and the woman who appeared in many of the photos. The woman said that one of the men in her photos looked like Jesus Christ. This thought, Andrea said, meant that calling them Christlike compounded the injuries we already inflicted, especially because they were being tortured in ways that offend their religious sensibilities. Further, by comparing prisoners to Jesus, we obliterate who they are, and end up using images to give meaning to the torturers rather than to those who suffer, and by doing so we help ourselves cope with what we are seeing. We justify it by reporting it from our cultural Christian perspective. This is also true of cognitive dissonance. It can be a flight from truth when we use our beliefs to uphold prejudices and hypocrisies, but also those little things that so much want to be true, but simply are not. Often we feel as though we need to mold the truth to maintain our sanity. But when does the molding destroy our integrity? When do we have to stand up and say, This is a mistake, and I made it. I was wrong, and I will try my hardest not to do it again. I dream that my children will learn to be adults who admit their mistakes. I long for a President who would admit his/her mistakes. I long for a responsible faith that teaches us to own up to our mistakes – for I know it will lead to more open and honest relationships, and more compassion and forgiveness of each other as well, once we take that responsibility. I want to write my name on the door with honesty and integrity, while struggling mightily to shave down, at least a little, that log that is there.

Closing Words – Lao Tzu (ca. 500 B.C.E.)
A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.