…To Forgive Divine

My flight was late, the cab got stuck in traffic and I was at risk of missing a critical meeting with a group of senior scientists that would have a significant impact on my career. I changed clothes rapidly in my hotel room and raced downstairs. In the hallway I ran into Professor Ken Maton, an old friend. He smiled at me and walked forward. Rather than giving me a hug or a handshake, he did what seemed a peculiar in-between gesture of patting me in the upper back while saying “Good to see you”. A few minutes into the meeting, a smile spread onto my face as the light bulb went off: In my haste to get dressed I must have flipped up my coat jacket collar. Rather than see me embarrassed in front of senior colleagues Ken had smoothed down my collar surreptitiously. He could have just told me to turn it down myself, but he didn’t want me to suffer even the mild embarrassment of knowing that a friend had observed me looking disheveled.

At a different time at a different hotel, a couple sat down at a booth near me in the half-empty restaurant. Either the Maitre d’ or the server of our section had clearly screwed up, because no one even stopped by their table for about 10 minutes. The woman suddenly stood up and yelled “What the $%&@ do we have do to get service in this *#@%&^ place!” Humiliated wait staff scrambled to her table, uttering apologies as they abased themselves before their angry customers.

When we make a mistake we put ourselves in others’ power. Some mistakes are so destructive that they are not easily forgiven or smoothed over, but many are like the examples above: Little stumbles on the road of life. In Michael O’Hare’s essay here on “class”, he wrote “One diagnostic of class is being comfortable, and making others comfortable, in any company.” Part of that virtue I think is being merciful towards, even unusually kind to, people who are vulnerable because they have made a mistake. But some people take the reverse approach of blasting and humiliating those who err, maybe out of self-importance (as if to imply that they never make errors themselves) and maybe because they have constant free-floating rage that they discharge at any remotely socially acceptable moment.

Blogging provides an ideal environment in which to observe how different people respond to mistakes. To blog is to err. Even the world’s two greatest newspapers have typographical, grammatical and factual errors in every issue, despite their skilled copy editors, fact checkers and research departments. Most bloggers in contrast operate with no such safety net. They work alone and often write quickly. Blog posts are composed in loud coffee shops and on bumpy bus rides. Sometimes the dog is barking and the kids are yelling in the background. Or maybe the house is at last quiet, but it’s two in the morning when the drowsy blogger really ought to be in bed.

As a result, anyone can go on any blog, read for 15 minutes or less and find a mistake, sometimes a small one and sometimes a real doozy. I don’t find that in itself interesting because it’s universal and inevitable; what fascinates me as a psychologist is the variance in response to such errors among those who catch them. Some people for lack of a better word just “go off” in self-righteous fury like the woman in the restaurant. Others point out the error in the comments section or on their own blog with a sincere desire to educate (We are blessed with a lot of this community-building work at RBC). And others pull a Ken Maton, and email the blogger quietly and privately. I absolutely do not expect this, but it’s a classy move when it happens. This is therefore as good a time as any to say thank you Jay Livingston, I can’t believe I misspelled Akira Kurosawa either!

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “…To Forgive Divine”

  1. Wonder who will be the first person to comb through this post for spelling and grammar errors…


  2. I belong to the “send emails to the blogger” school of typographic and grammatical correction. Shortly after I graduated from univeristy, in the “Wite-out” days, I was responsible for proofreading a report -probably two hundred pages. I found mulitple errors on each and every page for the typist to correct- some pages of the master ended largely coated in wite-out and pasted over sections. I thought I was an excellent proofreader. Four or five years later, I decided to reread the report. I was horrified to find many missed typos. This has made me grateful for word processing,and spell check programs; and very forgiving toward authors whose eyes see only what they meant to write.

  3. I’m guilty of correcting occasional blogger errors in comments. Sorry about that, chiefs.

    I also appreciate the times when someone knows how to say something humorous that smoothes everything over after I embarrass myself publicly.

  4. Fred: I’m guilty of correcting occasional blogger errors in comments. Sorry about that, chiefs.

    Please don’t misread me, a helpful correction, kindly conveyed, in the comments section is a benision. It makes all of us smarter. What grates are the comments (commendably rare at RBC but not on other sites) along the lines of “What kind of uncultured moron misspells the name of Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern…”…casual mean-spiritedness about natural human foibles coarsens our shared conversation.

  5. And to prove that blogs err, we get the evidence of calling the Economist one of the 2 top English-language newspapers!

  6. Bravo. If all bloggers adopted that attitude, the blogosphere would be a much more useful place. I look forward to seeing RBC lead the way.

  7. Great post! & that’s what the Internet is for, right? So that you can be sure of correctly spelling Akira Kurosawa?

  8. An anecdote – I don’t vouch for it, but it rings true. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain &c &c hosted a state banquet. The guest of honour seated next to her – a visiting head of state or prime minister or Nobel prizewinner or something – was very nervous, and managed to knock over his wineglass. Quick as lightning, the Queen knocked over hers, and commiserated with the red-faced man over their shared clumsiness. That’s class.

    May I echo Keith’s thanks to readers who correct us. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that commenters are stuck with their mistakes and typos, while we bloggers can go back and put ours right. My rule is that typos can be corrected free, mistakes, like the spilled wine, I can only cover up and must leave the embarrassing evidence on the tablecloth underneath (perhaps with a strikeout).

  9. With the utmost respect and humility I wonder, Mr. Humphrey, if perhaps you meant benison rather than benision? (I know I’m failing some sort of test here. Please forgive me.)

  10. So is every mistake
    Just the work of the snake,
    Ever since we were kicked out of the Garden?
    Will it be Heaven or Hell?
    Will we be saved by the bell,
    From a life of always begging pardon?


    Now, I am an agnostic, but I firmly believe that if we all could figure out the simple truth that Mr. Humphreys has so elegantly stated, we would all be redeemed. To err is human, but so is to forgive.

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