Mea Culpa


Many years ago, I was a cocky youth. Actually, to quote a former professor of mine, I was a “supercilious bastard,” one who seemed very sure of himself and unable to admit mistake.

It’s not an unusual trait for one as insecure as I was as a youth. In the midst of that insecurity, admitting mistakes seems to be a sign of weakness. We really don’t want to admit that we don’t know as much as we think we do, that we aren’t as charming as we think we are, that we are in fact selfish beings who are often driven by our own desires. Admitting our weakness means laying open bit of our real selves to others, and we really aren’t sure they won’t stomp all over our hearts. So we build up barriers of confidence which lead us to project a self assurance that seems impermeable.

This belief that contrition equals weakness has permeated our culture. It’s easy to pick on the media as the culprit which made apology a lost art form, but the reality is that the whole of culture doesn’t have much room for repentance and forgiveness. We revel in the discovered weakness of others. These faults become the fodder of television exposes and gossip magazines. In those rare cases where the guilty fall on their swords and admit their failings, we cynically pick apart their remorse and wonder if they were contrite enough.

Certainly, the two presidential candidates can rarely admit mistake. Of course, President Bush has been the most notorious in his assurance that he has made no mistakes, but John Kerry falls prey too. The other night Kerry went through all sorts of hoops to justify why he had mispoke about the score of the World Series game. Look, he is traveling almost 24 hours a day, visiting all sorts of towns and seeing all sorts of people, and still he can’t admit that he made a mistake when he said the Red Soxs had won by 10 runs instead of 11.

What would be so wrong about admitting mistake? Does admitting that we didn’t fully anticipate all that would happen mean that one is incompetent? Does everyone really believe that anyone can ever bat a thousand all the time? Why isn’t that we can’t admit to our faults, our impatience, our selfishness, in the face of critique?

The best lesson I think I ever learned was after I lost my second job in a row early in my adulthood. It would have been easy to shift the blame on my employers and walk away. Yet, in a moment of clarity that is far too rare in my life, I went to my former boss and asked for his advice on how to improve my life. He offered many thoughts, including the need to further my education (which I later did). However, the best advice he gave was to encourage me to be willing to admit my mistakes. “If you don’t know something, admit it,” he told me. “You don’t do anyone any favors by hiding your limitations behind that bluster.”

Why is it that we seem to lift up the most self-assured persons in the church as superstars? The leaders on which we want to ascribe power are more often than not the one’s who have the hardest time saying “I don’t know.” It’s as if we really don’t believe Jesus’ teaching that power comes in weakness, that we must become like children to inherit the kingdom.

What I long for as I watch our politicians and other leaders today is for someone to simply say “I blew it. I didn’t mean to, but I made a mistake, and I’ve learned from it.” To admit weakness is to admit that we aren’t God, that we aren’t fully in control of our destiny, and that we always have room for growth.



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