“We refuse to believe that which we do not understand. We foolishly believe that our own limitations are the proper measure of limitations. “
– Napoleon Hill
What if I’m wrong?
A question. A probe
What if I’m wrong?
A realization. A threat.
What if I’m wrong?
Failure. Defeat. Resurrection.
This utterance has the potential to unseat the world.
Allowing for the possibility of one’s own errors is a courageous feat. It places man in an uncomfortable position, one that forces existential questions as the construct which previously bolstered his world, is dismantled. One who dares ask, one who seeks to confront this challenge, embodies a profound sense of right and wrong and a dangerous desire for truth.
Truth seekers are change seekers. They are warriors who stand in the face of pain and assume their share of accountability, for with this new sense of responsibility, they can make different choices and change their fate. Deborah Gruenfeld explores this idea in an insightful reflection on victimhood. In a chapter from her book, Acting With Power, Gruenfeld distinguishes between people who have been victimized and those who assume the mentality of victims. The difference is crucial. Those who are assured of their personhood, despite being the target of predation and victimization, are able to maintain a sense of power. They are able to move forward and find ways of reasserting control over their lives. They experienced an event – painful and destructive, but recognize their power over present and future. From that place of strength, they act.
Victims, she asserts, create a mindframe of powerlessness. In their iteration of the world, they have no ability to affect their own will. They cannot self actualize because life is not in their hands. This is a dismal perception and begs the question, “What if I’m wrong?”
A similar model comes from Dr. Danielle Ofri, author of When We Do Harm, a frightening account of medical systems failures. In this work, Dr. Ofri shares story after story of errors that put patients’ lives on the line, and she includes herself in several examples illustrating how easy it is to be ensnared working for a system designed to prioritize profits over safety (and subsequently victimize doctors, nurses, patients, and their families).
Dr. Ofri is not proud of the diagnoses she misses, of the automatic disregard for “pop ups” in the EMR (a series of bubbles meant to notify doctors of potentially important information, but more often than not, an irrelevant and unhelpful block to the physicians’ interactions with their patients), of the way she fails to take the advice she pointedly drills into her medical students; however, she acknowledges her mistakes and commits to doing better. By unflinchingly dissecting personal and systems errors, Dr. Ofri shirks the label of victim and becomes an agent of change. Of hope.
Not so with the soldiers in Sebastian Faulks’s novel, Birdsong. The question of life, of whether life had betrayed them, is thrust upon them with horrifying brutality. They are victimized by a world that no longer makes sense, and it breaks them.
Jack Firebrace stood with Arthur Shaw on a raised ground near what they had once called One Tree Hill, watching. They expected a swift passage, Almost unopposed.
Jack was muttering, Shaw was saying nothing at all. They saw the Scots coming up out of their burrows like raving women in their skirts, dying in ripples across the yellowish-brown soil. They saw the steady tread of the Hampshires as though they had willingly embarked on a slow-motion dance from which they were content not to return. They saw men from every corner walking into an engulfing storm.
Their own contribution to the day, the vast hole that had been blown at twenty past seven, had given the enemy ten minutes in which to take their positions at leisure. By the crater they saw young men dying in quantities that they had not dreamed possible. They had not fired a shot.
The excess of it made them clutch each other’s arms in disbelief.
“They can’t let this go on,” said Jack, “they can’t.”
Shaw stood with his mouth open. He was unmoved by the violence, hardened by the mutilation he had seen and inflicted, but what he was watching here was something of a different order. Please God, let it stop, though Jack. Please let them send no more men into this hurricane.
The padre, Horrocks, came and stood with them. He crossed himself and tried to comfort them with words and prayers.
Jack turned his face away from what he saw, and he felt something dying in him as he turned.
Shaw had begun to weep. He held his miner’s hands to the sides of his head and the tears coursed down his face. “Boys, boys,” he kept saying. “Oh my poor boys.”
Horrocks was trembling. “This is half of England. What are we going to do?” he stammered.
Soon they all fell silent. There was an eruption from the trench below and another wave went up into the pitted, moonlike landscape, perhaps Essex or Duke of Wellington’s, it was impossible to see. They made no more than ten yards before they began to waver, single men at first picked out, knocked spinning, then more going as they reached the barrage; then, when the machine guns found them, they rippled, like corn through which the wind is passing. Jack thought of meat, the smell of it.
Horrocks pulled the silver cross from his chest and hurled it from him. His old reflex still persisting, he fell to his knees, but he did not pray. He stayed kneeling with his palms spread out on the ground, then lowered his head and covered it with his hands. Jack knew what had died in him (Faulks 220-221).
Their system had a failure and that error, that faulty belief that life was supposed to make some kind of sense, shattered their concept of the world, leaving them with the somber conclusion that “the difference between life and death was not one of fact but merely of time” (Faulks 335). Overwhelmed by the magnitude of their error, helpless to help, unable to unsee, the soldiers are propelled into a new version of reality. Unlike Dr. Ofri, they are powerless to change the system. Yet somehow, as the novel progresses, they find the strength to cast off the yoke of victimhood.
Where do you fall on this spectrum of truth and travail? Do you act with power?
Faulks, Sebastian. Birdsong. Vintage International, 1993.
Gruenfeld, Deborah. Acting With Power. Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2020. (audiobook)
Ofri, Danielle. When We Do Harm. Beacon Press, 2020. (audiobook)