Columnists > From the Publisher

Course corrections

In a life of making mistakes, the challenge is to face up to them

Issue: "Fighting Cultural Ebonics," Feb. 1, 1997

The essence of being a good airplane pilot, a friend of mine told me once, is constantly to think about the errors you've just made--and then to compensate for them. Every pilot makes mistakes. Those who have the habit of noting and then correcting the little mistakes they've just made live to perfect their skills. Those who regularly ignore their errors will sooner or later pay for their carelessness--maybe even with their lives.

The world needs a whole lot more people who live their lives like good airplane pilots. Without becoming gloomy and altogether introspective, we need a population of people who aren't scared to look straight in the face of what we've just done and then to say: &quotThat was wrong, and it needs correcting."

We don't have such a population for at least three simple reasons:

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First, in large measure, we don't really even believe in error any more. When you do away with ultimate values, and are no longer confident there are really such things as right and wrong, how can you have a strong sense of having erred? Do away with absolute standards, and there's nothing left to compensate for.

That's one reason, for example, that things are so blurry in Washington, D.C., right now. Standards for behavior have become so dulled and made so ambiguous that no one seems any longer really to know for sure whether laws have actually been broken. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been charged with breaking no laws, says he's innocent of the charges against him, and still agrees to pay a $300,000 fine. Defenders of the administration, meanwhile, keep reminding us that--countering all appearances--there aren't any formal charges against Mr. Clinton, either, and that his critics should shut their mouths or produce a smoking gun. All this happens because we've simply lost the ability in the first place to spell out what's right and what's wrong. We've moved into a never-never land of moral illusions.

But second, when we do come around to admitting that there are such things as real moral standards, we still tend to relativize them. We resort to the old childhood excuse that &quothe did it first."

In a land where nobody ever gets measured, there are no short people. We're outraged at the behavior of one public servant only until someone in our own party gets caught doing approximately the same thing. Then we become embarrassingly adept at discovering why what was first a hanging offense has now become something that everyone is doing.

The apostle Paul described us in that role when he said, &quotWhen they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise."

Wise or not, we keep doing it. Instead of dealing honestly with our mistaken behavior, we hitch up our pants, note that we're probably not that much worse than everybody else, and charge on.

A third reason for our failure to deal realistically with the wrongs we've just committed is that in almost every area of life, we've invented instant solutions. So we suppose that with reference to moral problems as well, we have the right to snap our fingers and wish away our wrongs.

Some of the most successful businesses going today are built on human failure. Federal Express is wealthy because so many of us are procrastinators. NationsBank can charge inordinate fees when we subtract wrong in our checkbooks and overdraw our accounts. Microsoft's software delights in helping you glide by the mistake you just made. Did you just catch yourself in a goof? Never mind. A ready solution is close at hand. If it's small, you can backspace. If it's big, you can delete the whole document--and nobody will ever know.

The problem, though, with such a casual and easy approach to the wrongs that we've just committed in some parts of our lives is that we tend to think we can apply such easy solutions to every wrong.

You cannot, for example, successfully fly an airliner by (1) pretending that no mistakes have been made, (2) rationalizing that other pilots have probably just made the same errors, or (3) hitting the backspace key after you plow into a mountain.

Neither can you form marriages that last or establish families that prosper unless you deal honestly and realistically with wrongdoing. A business that intends to endure has to have systems for dealing with errors. A nation has to come to terms with wrongdoing.

But society is not made up merely of those who have faced their wrongs and those who haven't. Among those who own up to their mistakes, there's still a big divide. Some try to compensate for all those errors entirely on their own, with renewed self-discipline and increased effort. Yet in doing that, such folks are simply compounding their errors. The ultimate winners are those who discover they can't do it on their own, but turn instead to God to say: &quotI've spent my whole life goofing up. It's part of who I am. I want now to face that wrongdoing head on--and I need you to do what I cannot." Sometimes it's a brand-new believer in Jesus who says that. Sometimes, it's someone who--like a pilot--knows you've got to keep doing that during the whole flight.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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