Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Being Wrong

I’m wrong most of the time. But I also now realize there are varying flavors of wrongness. There’s the time where you realize you said the wrong thing in the moment you said it. Then there’s the more dangerous kind of wrong. The kind where you think you know what’s going on, only to realize days or maybe even weeks later, you had no clue. I’m convinced this is where the palm-to-forehead “D’oh” first came into being.

Walter, one of the main community organizers here at Cristosal, loves to tell me: “Hannah, you don’t listen!” He is always challenging me to repeat what was said, knowing more often than not, I just assumed I knew exactly what was going on, what someone will say, and I just ran with it in my own little world. Because, as most of my family and friends know full well, I know best. Or at least I think I do. I jump to conclusions, I summarize, I assume. Translation… lots of D’oh moments.


I think that about covers it...

It’s not required that you live in a foreign country to experience these various degrees of incorrectness, though speaking and working in a new language certainly helps. It’s humbling to be moving full speed ahead, aglow with confidence and relief that at long last you’re getting a handle on things, only to have your feet knocked out from under you.

But perhaps the best lesson of all has been to slowly learn to relish rather than resist these moments. In capoeira, we’ve come to celebrate those rare conversations when I understand the dirty jokes, the slang, the inside stories, the nicknames. We throw our hands in the air and everyone says with an exaggerated Salvadoran accent: “Lua understands!”

At work, I keep a running mental list of how much I understood at each bimonthly meeting: 15%... 50%... 75%... 90%! It’s so easy to jump to critiques – everything I should be able to do by now. But instead this simple shift from being wrong to being wrong right now has made an enormous difference. I could make it mean so many things – I don’t belong here, I should just keep my mouth shut, don’t try anything new because you’ll just fail. Or it could mean a new chance to start over, to reassess, with more information. It could be a sign that I’m moving forward, that I’m trying new things, that I’m being courageous. I most definitely prefer the second set of interpretations.

This difference shows up most at my job. It’s all brand new and nothing short of fascinating! To move from organic compounds found in petroleum waste to developing social business models based on human rights is a whole new whirlwind of terms and structures and ideas. And one distinct difference (among many): at my former job, there were very clear binaries – very obvious rights and wrongs. Either the numbers add up or they don’t. There was a certain comfort in the redundancy of doing work that someone else could easily check. Now, talking about human rights, about development theory, about how exactly do you accompany a community while at the same time working to inspire and encourage a vision beyond basic survival and near-starvation… well, let’s just say we use very few true/false statements.


Thank goodness for Walter. For my capoeira group for treating me like a sister rather than a stranger to coddle, to tip-toe around. There is a frankness, a raw, abrupt check that makes it nearly impossible to zone out, to default into a rhythm. And I love it. Every day is an invigorating, challenging, wipe-the-board-clean lesson in humility, in learning how to dust off your ego and jump back in with just as much vitality and gusto as before. And through a magical combination of forgiveness, optimism, community, (and a few calls to Mom), I’ve been able to reach out to these moments of wrongness, not with anger and frustration, but with gratitude.

Get new posts by email!