Thursday, 1 December 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Wrong

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from my dad. I was in high school, and on the horns of some dilemma.

For some reason, my dad – whose counsel trended to the brief and prescriptive – heard me out this time, as I explained my choices and why I feared I might be censured either way.

My dad nodded a few times, and after a brief silence, said:

"Well, in the end, it doesn't matter."

I hadn't expected this.

"What? Why not?" I asked.

"Because you're always going to get criticised. No matter how carefully you choose your course of action, someone's going to call you an idiot, or a jerk, or a traitor. There is literally no decision a man can take, about anything, that isn't morally reprehensible to somebody."

"Great," I said. "So what do I do?"

"You choose your critic," he said.

I raised an eyebrow, and he continued.

"Suppose you're walking down the street and a panhandler asks you for spare change.

"If you give it to him, I guarantee you somebody will say, 'Nice going, you jerk! You know he's just going to spend that on booze. You're keeping him addicted, undermining the economy, making it possible for freeloaders to live off society. People like you make me sick!'

"On the other hand, if you don't give it to him, someone else will say, 'You selfish bastard! You wouldn't go hungry tonight without that 75¢, but he might! You can't spare a handful of coins for a brother who's down on his luck? Even drunks have to eat. You're the reason life is so lousy!'

"So that's the choice: which gripe can you live with?"

In my life I've consistently found that this formula busts up ethical logjams like nobody's business. It doesn't always lead to the safest decision – to put it mildly – but it does generally reveal the one I'm least likely to be ashamed of later, even in the face of inevitable criticism.

My dad's gone now; he died in September. And since I don't have any kids of my own, I figured this was as good a time and place as any to pass on his thunderously effective mindfulness tool.

In these morally challenging times, when even the citizens of heretofore principled societies face dubious and potentially dangerous demands on their allegiance, this is the sort of advice we can all use.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson.)
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