Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
April 2023 - Volume 23, No. 4
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Being Wrong

Let’s imagine we’re in a classroom somewhere, perhaps in an institution of “higher learning” - and a teacher (say, a professor) was lecturing on a particular topic. Then, at one point, he or she would pause, then say to the class

“Now let's suppose I'm wrong. Please respond to me. Let’s talk.”[1]

If this hadn’t happened before, I’m sure there would be a very awkward silence. Isn’t it true that for most all of us, being ‘taught’ something should mean that we are to learn it, and having learned it, be able to be accept the presented truth of the matter - and perhaps even to be able to give it back in an exam question. Those are the standard rules of learning.

And isn’t the world, at its best ordered by principles of what’s right and what’s wrong?

Or perhaps we become aware we weren’t listening for the purpose of being able to critique the teacher or teaching. Maybe ‘lazy listening.’

Now let’s say the teacher has told us ahead of time he or she will do this, and randomly. We would be listening in quite a different way, more critically. And probably learning at deeper (or “higher”) levels. Each time a teacher would challenge us to present a counter argument, could be a wonderful ‘teaching moment.’

Wouldn’t that be wonderful, exciting, a lively way to learn.

I can imagine it now - a teacher will announce at the beginning of a class, that he or she will present the subject and ideas as best as she or he can. But the class homework is that each return, in writing, a counter argument. The student doesn’t have to personally believe the argument, it only has to be well and honestly presented.


What if, in a home setting, a parent is in conversation with a child or a youth, concerning a responsibility, or a rule, or discipline, or a behavior. And then the parent would say

“Now let’s suppose I’m wrong. Please respond to me. Let’s talk.”

Wouldn't that be wonderful, exciting, a great way for parent-child interaction.

And what if parents themselves have been practicing the discipline of knowing how to listen to each other and be willing to ‘be wrong’.


I remember where I first encountered this pattern. In my small Iowa town and small High School (there were 54 in my graduating class) - we didn’t have a debate team. But I learned that in larger schools, this was an interscholastic discipline involving formal teams. Debate involved structured discourse on any given subject put forward for common opposing viewpoints. What impressed me was that each debater must be fully prepared at a moment’s notice to present either side of a given topic.

What excellent training for my future as a marriage counselor.

This is, of course, akin to the Socratic Method of teaching - a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. (Wikipedia)

My son Michael recently wrote online “I like questions that are invitations, rather than demands for an answer.” He’s not yet 50, and he knows this stuff.

We can pray “Thy will be done.” On the surface it comes across as an invitation to passivity. But deeper spiritual experience can teach us that it emerges as a wrestling with the “thy” toward the emergence of something new (a ‘third thing’).[2]

A Freedom to Listen

There’s a freedom in this - that emerges from the freedom to be wrong. In a previous Newsletter, I’ve agued that whenever we find ourselves wanting to justify, explain or defend ourselves, just Stop. Nothing of value will follow.[3] Self-justification frequently means one just isn’t listening.

It allows us not to be afraid to listen, to hear, to be a part of a dialogue or conversation that can promisee to open a deeper understanding among each other. And that can take courage - the very kind of courage that grows relationships. It’s the secret ingredient of a mature marriage.

In our legislative and legal structures, it can mean a greater wisdom in our laws. In our Educational structures, it can mean to obtain wisdom, not just knowledge.[4] In our Social structures it can lead to a greater inclusivity or fellowship or community, less exclusiveness or parochialism. Fewer wars.[5] And perhaps less need for “gated communities” or ghettos.

Worth paying attention, don’t you think?


[1] The original source for this subject was a recent edition of The Marginalien by Maria Popova <> - the specific address is
If this subject intrigues you, read this specific article. It’s better than what I’ve written here.

[2] My readers may recall from earlier Newsletters how vital “a third thing” is to my mental cosmology.

[3] August 1922 -

[4] I was once taught that knowledge is the learning of and about facts and the logic of things. It’s what you learn by going to school. Wisdom comes later - it’s what you do with what you have learned. It’s more the territory of our elders. This is more where “being wrong” can have great value and advantage.

[5] In the Summer of 1958 I was an exchange student under the American Field Service - who’s motto has long been “Walk together, talk together, all you people of the earth, and then you shall have peace.” Peace in the human world is ‘a third thing.’
The American Field Service was born from the volunteer ambulance corps serving in the battlefields of France in WW1. They obviously had learned a thing or two.

And another quote I picked up somewhere along the road:
“We think we have come here to fulfill our chosen mission and be successful. But as time goes by, it is not like that at all. In fact, we are here to fail, but not to take it personally.”

Comments (2)

  • I loved the last line…that was a light bulb moment right there.
    “We are here to fail and not take it personally’ Wow, that resonated

    — Linda, 4/6/2023
  • The last line “We are here to fail and not take it personally’ also hit me hard. This is one of the most difficult areas I have fought. That is probably what makes me lean toward an Obsessive personality. And here, I always thought I inherited it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    — Alice, 4/8/2023

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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