On Being Wrong


Sermon #23 (6th August 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Digging Holes, Falling in, and Getting Out Again

Today is the first Sunday in our month on ‘Triumph and Disaster’. The particular sort of disaster that I want us to think about today is the sort which can happen when we make mistakes. Of course a mistake need not be a disaster – most mistakes are easily fixed (if we notice we’ve made them) and soon forgotten – but I’m particularly thinking about the times when a little mistake turns into a big one: when we make things worse by digging in our heels, refusing to admit we are wrong, compounding the error, missing the chance to change our mind, or change our ways, and digging ourselves a ruddy great hole in the process.

We all make mistakes. Hopefully we can agree on that much, to start with! Mistakes can be big or small, inconsequential or catastrophic, and it’s not always obvious which is which. Sometimes we can find an apparently small mistake has turned into a giant snowball rolling downhill, getting away from us somehow, and wreaking havoc to all in its path.

If you’re anything like me, as you hear these words, you might be cringing internally, recalling mistakes of your own, times when you were so sure you were right and you turned out to be wrong, when you really thought you were doing the right thing but it all backfired somehow, reliving flashbacks to regrettable life experiences you’d rather forget.

If you’re a cringer, like I am, perhaps you will also find the words on the front of the order of service today helpful – A pithy little saying by 13th-century Zen Buddhist thinker Dogen Zenji – he says: ‘Life is one continuous mistake’. In its way, I think that’s quite reassuring. Brenda Shoshanna, a contemporary writer on Zen Buddhism, also a psychotherapist, has reflected on the wisdom of this saying, and here’s what she has to say about it:

“Life is one continuous mistake.” – If we are truly able to absorb this statement it becomes much easier to become real. One continuous mistake relieves us of false feelings of shame, guilt, and self-hate when we fumble and err. It boldly and clearly informs us that the very nature of life itself forces us to fall down, make mistakes, be made a fool of, and then to get up again. It is this very process of life itself that diminishes foolish pride we are so filled with. During my life and Zen practice if there has been a pothole in the street, like clockwork, I fall into it. If there was a mistake to be made, I made it. Not only once, but again and again. Instead of fearing to walk out of the house, I have learned to enjoy being in the potholes when I land there and spend time looking around. Rather than hating myself or the potholes, I just simply say, “Oh, [I did it] again.” After fully experiencing a particular pothole, as many times as I fall in, getting out becomes easier. By now I have become quite good at falling into potholes and just climbing out. As a result of all this, I am quite familiar with the terrain of potholes and find a particular beauty in them. As I have done this many times, they hold less attraction to me. Now I fall in and get out in a matter of moments, no damage, no shame.

Words by the psychotherapist and Zen practitioner Brenda Shoshanna. This put me in mind of the poem ‘Autobiography in Five Chapters’ by Portia Nelson, which I’ve included in your order of service today, so you can read that in your own time.

Let’s think about the whole world of mistakes we can make, then, and just a few of the tremendous variety of ways in which we can be wrong about things.

We can be wrong about facts. There are a variety of ways this can happen. We might be unaware, uninformed, misinformed, misled, deceived, or forgetful. Or we might have been in a position to know the facts but misunderstood. I expect we can all think of examples, some personal, some political, where a person, or a group, or a nation has made a bad decision because they got the facts wrong.

We can take a position, or engage in action, that is morally wrong somehow. To keep it simple let’s say by ‘wrong’ we mean doing things that we know, at some level, are likely to harm other people, or society, or the planet. Sometimes we do this inadvertently, perhaps because we aren’t fully aware of our situation and how our action (or inaction) can impact on others. Sometimes we are pushed into it by circumstances when we find ourselves in a moral dilemma when we have to choose the ‘lesser of two evils’.

We can, occasionally, make a seriously wrong judgement, or take a very wrong turning in life. We might do something that seems to have huge fall-out for ourselves and for others, something that we truly regret, the sort of scenario where you might well wonder how on earth you got yourself into such a catastrophe. A disaster, you might say. Of course, in all these scenarios: establishing facts, making moral judgements, and life choices, it’s not always easy to know when you’ve made a mistake or to tell right from wrong. The world is complex. I’m confident of a few basic facts: that 1+1 = 2, and – last time I checked – the capital of Burkina Faso is still Ouagadougou. But as soon as we start thinking about more complicated matters – about the workings of the world and our place in it – it is hard to be entirely sure about anything much… and although on the one hand it’s good to have the courage of our convictions, it’s also hugely important to bear in mind that, at any given moment, we might be wrong. Factually wrong. Morally wrong. One way or another, on the wrong path. By keeping this possibility in mind we stand a chance of nipping our error in the bud. If we notice that we have gone astray then we’ve got an opportunity to put things right.

There’s a saying attributed to Rabbi Simca Bunam of Przysucha: ‘The mistakes man makes are not his greatest crime. Rather, his greatest crime is that he has the power to do teshuvah — to turn his life around at any moment — yet he does not do so!’

In the reading from Johann Hari that we heard earlier he pointed out that our society has got a really unhelpful attitude towards mistakes, given that we all make them all the time. Anyone in public life who admits they got something wrong, and tries to change direction, will be torn to shreds by the press – and the public, it seems – for ‘flip-flopping’ or ‘U-turns’. As he says: ‘we make it easier to continue in error than to admit error and put it right’. More widely than that, society encourages people to bluff, to put on a bullish front, to act like we are certain when the wisest path might be to say ‘I don’t know’. Surely we’re better off making it easier for tell the truth, be authentic, when they’re unsure? Isn’t it better for society if we look for ways to help people redeem themselves after a mistake? To support people who realise and acknowledge they’ve made a mistake – large or small – and who sincerely want to turn again, set things right (if they can – it’s not always possible), and start afresh. The attitudes that Johann Hari is drawing attention to – this zero tolerance for admitting error that we have in public life – and perhaps also this habit of shaming and shunning – is a recipe for going from wrong to wronger – as individuals, organisations, nations, as a species – getting ourselves into a bit of a hole, and deciding to carry on digging, deeper and deeper. Why not say: if you notice you’re in a hole, maybe stop digging, and ask for a hand getting out of it?

I think that one of the tasks of a church community like this one is to try and counteract some of these unhelpful habits of our wider society. And I think the second reading we heard, by Robin Tanner, gives us a clue about a spiritual practice that can help us to respond to our human fallibility in a healthier way. Robin Tanner – a Unitarian Universalist – speaks up in praise of the practice of confession. Surprising, perhaps? In her story the priest asks two simple questions: ‘What have you done that you wish you hadn’t done?’ and ‘What could you do to make it better?’ – To me, those questions seem really helpful.

Now… I don’t think we’ll be installing a confessional box in the church foyer anytime soon. But there is a practice that we already do here at Essex Church, which is in the same spirit, and which encourages us to take a good hard look at our lives, kindly, but honestly. To consider whether we are making mistakes, going astray, taking the wrong path. To look at our actions and our attitudes and see if they’re in accord with our highest values. Anyone who comes to our monthly ‘Heart and Soul’ gatherings will know that at each one we spend a good long time in prayer and contemplation together. We do ‘naming’ prayer – giving thanks for what is good in our lives. We do ‘loving’ prayer – lighting candles for people and situations we care about. We do ‘listening’ prayer – sitting in shared silence together to listen for the voice within. And we do what we call ‘knowing’ prayer – it’s about knowing ourselves, honest self-reflection. And it’s kind of the closest thing that we’ve got as Unitarians to a practice of confession. This way of praying was based on something that the Unitarian Universalist minister Erik Walker Wikstrom suggested, in his book ‘Simply Pray’, and here’s what he says about it:

‘We are all a mixture of saint and sinner, and this… is an opportunity to see and know ourselves in all our subtle shadings. This is not a call for guilt or self-criticism but for honest self-appraisal. Unless we acknowledge our faults and failings, we can do nothing about overcoming them. This type of prayer allows us the opportunity to give voice to the broken, wounded, worried places in our souls. It is the chance to take a “fearless moral inventory,” to use the language of the Twelve Step Movement, and to give voice to what lurks in the shadows. The life of the spirit calls on us to be authentic, whole people, and knowing where we are weak and wounded is essential to meeting this challenge.’

Words from the UU minister Erik Walker Wikstrom on the practice of Knowing Prayer. [As an aside, this whole prayer practice that we do at ‘Heart and Soul’ is a really good one for anyone looking to make a regular Unitarian-style practice to do at home so if anyone wants to learn more about that let me know after the service (I can send info).] And to close this mini-sermon I’ll like to invite you to join in a short time of Knowing Prayer so that we can all try the practice out together today. So, once again, put down anything you don’t need to be holding, physically or otherwise, And let’s settle into a time of prayer… there will a few words of guidance, interspersed with silences for your own internal reflection… we’ll take about four or five minutes for this altogether.

Let us take a few moments now to look back over the last few days, maybe the last week.

Consider all the good that has happened, and everything you’ve done that you’re proud of:
achievements, kindnesses, ways in which you made the world a little bit better.

Gently consider things that didn’t go so well, and everything that you are not so proud of:
mistakes, faults, ways in which you might have caused hurt, intentionally or otherwise.

Become aware of your moods and feelings, words and actions, over the last day or so:
Looking back – what has brought you joy, consolation and a sense of being alive?

Looking back – what has disheartened you, made you uneasy, or bad-tempered?

Looking back – how have you used your time, energy and gifts over the last few days?

As this time of knowing prayer comes to a close,
you might like to silently address your own highest self,
or you might like to speak inwardly to God in your own words,
perhaps asking for guidance on how to make amends and start anew,
perhaps asking for forgiveness and a peaceful heart,
or perhaps asking for help to live an ever more fruitful life.
Let’s take a minute now for those silent prayers of our hearts.

God of All Love, Spirit of Life – we give thanks for all the ways in which
we are already flourishing and using our gifts for good in the world.
In the days and weeks to come, may we be kind to ourselves and each other,
re-dedicating our hearts, each time we slip, to the path of love, justice, and peace.


Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: