As the summer months cool and the days begin to shorten, there is a group of people who begin to wake up before dawn. As the last of the night holds on to its final moments, stretching time out over the infinite horizon, this group of people sings. The songs they intone are a theme and variation on a single idea which can be boiled down to the phrase, “I was wrong”.
I am describing the practice of selihot, penitential prayers, recited by Sephardic Jews throughout this Hebrew month in preparation for the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This year, selihot has felt more relevant than ever as a practice of something which seems to have become more and more difficult in our polarized society, admitting when we are wrong.
This difficulty in admitting being wrong, whether it is about information or one’s actions, has led to a deeply troubling trend. In it, individuals who are met with a reality that demonstrates that they were wrong, do not respond with reflection and growth, but rather with a denial of that reality, and with a deeper sinking into their problematic perspective and behavior.
Sadly, this is not just a character flaw. In 2020 this trend has led to the illness and death of many, to the justification of violence, and the tearing of the very fabric of our society. However, all is not lost. We as everyday people can do our part to turn this trend around. This can begin by accepting being wrong as a normal and necessary part of learning, because it is.
Researchers Sprague and Stuart (2000) describe four stages in a learner’s development.
1- Unconscious incompetence 2- Conscious incompetence
3- Conscious competence 4- Unconscious competence
The implications of these stages are many. For this discussion there are two vital things to point out. First, stage 2, conscious incompetence, is really just a fancy way of describing when a person discovers they are wrong. There is nothing inherently shameful about it. It is simply a stage in a trajectory as a person develops their knowledge and expertise. Furthermore, it is precisely what opens the door to developing into stage 3, conscious competence, in which a person fixes their misunderstanding or mistake and grows.
Secondly, this trajectory highlights why refusing to admit being wrong is so damaging. Doing so is to remove stage 2 from its trajectory and to make the choice to remain consciously incompetent. It is to deny the possibility of becoming more than we currently are.
As humans, interconnected beings on this planet, this is not a choice any of us can afford to make. Instead we can strive to look at being wrong within the context of what it is to be someone who is constantly learning. We can look at realities that challenge our viewpoints as teachers guiding us to the next stage of our evolving selves. We can see ourselves as eternally capable of growth and moments of being wrong as our chance to prove it, not through denying those moments, but by embracing them.
Selihot is an effective practice to help us develop this mind set if we think about it in the right way. Perhaps there is a better practice for you personally. Whatever it is, it should help us learn to accept being wrong when we are and to see ourselves as a person who can evolve precisely in those moments. As this time in our country is showing us, our very survival might depend on it.
Sprague, J. & Stuart, D. (2000). The Speaker’s Handbook. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College Publishers