Monday, July 26, 2010

On Being Wrong

On a beautiful September Sunday afternoon in 2008 the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos were battling hard on the NFL gridiron in a back and forth struggle. With less than a minute to go in the game the Broncos had the ball on the Chargers one yard line about to score the potential go ahead touchdown. The Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler dropped back to throw and the ball slipped out of his hands. It bounced off the grass and into the arms of Chargers linebacker Tim Dobbins. The play was ruled an incomplete pass on the field and declared dead because veteran referee Ed Hochuli had blown the whistle. However, instant replay showed that the play was clearly a fumble, but because the whistle had blown NFL rules state that the ball has to be placed at the spot where the ball hit the ground. So Denver retained the ball at the 10 yard line and not long after that they scored a touchdown and a two point conversion to win 39-38. Had Ed Hochuli not blown the whistle prematurely, the replay would have awarded the ball to the Chargers who no doubt would have won the game. Mr. Hochuli had this to say after the game, 

"I'm getting hundreds of e-mails -- hate mail -- but I'm responding to it all," Hochuli wrote to several Chargers fans, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. "People deserve a response. You can rest assured that nothing anyone can say can make me feel worse than I already feel about my mistake on the fumble play. You have no idea … Affecting the outcome of a game is a devastating feeling. Officials strive for perfection -- I failed miserably. Although it does no good to say it, I am very, very sorry." 


It takes a man to do that, and no one would question that Mr. Hochuli is a man when they see him in the zebra stripes on Sunday. He is bigger and in better shape than a lot of the athletes he referees. But that's physical appearance. I'm talking about character here. He had the character to admit he was wrong, respond to EVERYONE who sent him all manner of hate mail, and apologize. I was stunned when I read this. This is a man who used to be president of the NFLRA and who now will be graded down thus affecting his ability to earn a lot more money officiating in the playoffs. Yet he took responsibility and did the right thing by admitting he did the wrong thing. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here.

I thought of the above story about Ed Hochuli as I was reading a recent post in the Freakonomics blog in the New York Times. It was a guest post by Kathryn Schulz author of Being Wrong. Here is some of what she has to say, 

"Listening to BP CEO Tony Hayward dodge and duck during last week’s congressional inquiry into the explosion of the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, I was struck all over again by our stunning, culture-wide inability to face up to ignorance, failure, and mistakes. That inability is particularly evident up in the power stratosphere, where admissions of error are made rarer by (among other things) threats of litigation, fear of the wrath of voters or shareholders, and a value system that generally prioritizes certainty and ego over curiosity and humility.  But this problem is hardly limited to our political, military, economic and corporate leaders.  On the contrary: our society as a whole has completely neglected to master the art of acknowledging our mistakes.  In fact, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it could provide.  Instead, what we have mastered are two alternatives to admitting our mistakes that serve to highlight exactly how bad we are at doing so.  The first involves a small but strategic addendum: “I was wrong, but…” – a blank we then fill in with wonderfully imaginative explanations for why we weren’t so wrong after all.  The second (infamously deployed by, among others, Richard Nixon regarding Watergate and Ronald Reagan regarding the Iran-Contra affair) is even more telling: we say “mistakes were made.”  As that evergreen locution so concisely demonstrates, all we really know how to do with our errors is not acknowledge them as our own. How do we go about changing that?  It would be nice if we could all just start saying “I was wrong” more openly and readily – but if that’s the end we want, it cannot also be the means to get us there.  (Not to mention that if it were that easy, we’d hear a lot more of those admissions in the first place.)  Cultural shifts aren’t created by wishful thinking, and they aren’t created out of whole cloth, either.  As James Bagian, head of the Veterans Administration’s National Center for Patient Safety, told me, “You don’t change the culture [of denial and blame around error] by saying, ‘Let’s change the culture.’  You change the culture by giving people new tools that actually work.”

In this article the tools they go on to discuss are more motivational and moral rather than spiritual. But for the Christian, we have been given a lot of tools to help us know when we're wrong; to help us admit we're wrong; and to help us not be wrong. We know the tools: the Bible, prayer, the Holy Spirit, the example of Christ, the church - so much! But what are we doing with the tools? How are we using these tools? Here are a couple verses to help get us started in the right direction:

Psalm 119:11 (ESV), "I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."

1 John 1:9 (ESV), "If we confess our sins he (Jesus) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Don't be afraid or too proud to say...