On Being Wrong

By Rev. Jon Turner

“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

Mark Twain

As I began watching the movie The Big Short, this quotation from Mark Twain scrolled by. It struck me that knowing what you don’t know is what makes one wise. From a Buddhist perspective, our suffering is caused by an overreliance on the self. We believe that we know things. We often mistake our opinions as facts.

This conversion of opinions into facts is a very subtle process. It is enabled by what is called the conformation bias. This is where we only notice things that agree with what we believe in. For example, if we believe that a certain breed of dog is hard to train then we only notice them when they are barking. Or if we don’t like big trucks on the road then we only notice a truck when it cuts us off.

But this does not mean that we cannot have opinions. We just don’t want to convert them into facts. This means having a mind that is open to new experiences and appreciates all things in our lives. Opinions are inevitable but we must be able to change our opinions as we receive new information. Snap judgments are not necessarily wrong as long as we keep re-evaluating them.

Will Rogers once said, “I never met a man I did not like.” I thought he was saying that he liked everyone. This did not seem possible to me. Quotations are often like this. The meaning is below the surface. I think Rogers is saying that he never prejudged someone. For example, if he met George W. Bush or Barack Obama, he wouldn’t make assumptions about them due to their political party. He would try to engage them as people, with an open mind. In other words, everyone he met with a clean slate. He brought no biases with him. He judged them in the moment as they interacted with him.

Opinions and judgments also divide the world into two. There are those who agree with us and those who do not. Kathryn Shultz gave a TED Talk entitled On Being Wrong. She discussed how we deal with people who do not agree with our opinions. She said there are three general approaches that we take.

First, we think they must just be misinformed. They just don’t know what we know. Second, they have been exposed to the truth but just do not understand it. Third, they have been exposed to the truth, understand it but choose not to believe it. All three of these explanations can be dangerous.

Schultz suggests that being wrong is not something sinister but instead something wonderful. It is how we learn and grow. Being comfortable with being wrong allows one to live a dynamic and powerful life.

There is also a video entitled Are You a Knower or a Learner which describes knowers as fixed and learners as flexible. It is OK to know something as long as it is not absolute and fixed. Happiness does not come from collecting facts. It comes from engaging in everyday life as something new and fresh.

In our Jodo Shinshu tradition of Buddhism, we might rephrase it as Are You a Knower or a Listener. Rather than knowing Buddhism, we try to listen to the teachings. This is our path. Our mind is forever perfumed by the teachings. It is not our beliefs but our attitude that define our practice.

Underlying all these examples is the fallacy of the false choice; that we can only choose one alternative or only one solution. It is important to remind ourselves that two things can be true at the same time. I notice this at debates when they present issues as a false choice. There is a Republican choice and a Democratic choice. They are different and mutually exclusive. I also often hear that we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Often times we are both. If we could really listen to others we might find that we need a little of solution A and a little of solution B to really make progress on an issue.

It is also important to remember that even when we disagree that both sides can still have good intentions. I might vote differently from someone else at a Temple board meeting but that does not mean that we both do not want what is best. Often times we have to make decisions with limited information. There are also unintended consequences to every decision. Sometimes we are right for the wrong reasons and visa versa. I believe that knowing what we do not know can really help us find common ground and listen to the needs and opinions of others. This approach can help ensure that we move forward in a constructive manner, where all sides feel heard and valued.

Namuamidabutsu, Rev Jon Turner