I have worked for many years on excellence of mind
I have come to respect deeply this axiom from James:
“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”James 3:2. ESV.
These are not difficult words, but even so, we have to work a bit to understand what James was intending. He notes―and, I believe, including himself in the “we”―that all people of his time failed in many ways. (And I would assume this continues today; it is certainly true of me!) And then, as if to narrow this general observation to a single, easy-to-understand example, he focuses right away on the things people say. He says that if a person were able never to be at fault in his speech, that would be a “perfect” person. (Jesus is our only human example of this, by the way.) And the word for “perfect” here more properly means “mature” or “complete”. He says that a person who had that manner of complete control over his tongue would also have complete control over his body.
The way I see it right now, there seem to be two general outputs of the human spirit: what we say and what we do. That is, one’s inner disposition―what one thinks and believes and wants―is expressed outwardly in what we say (and don’t say), and in what we do (and don’t do). And I think that the “stumbling” to which James refers is likely in regard to that output of our inner selves. In this context, he’s speaking of teachers specifically, and not just of the general behaviors of the general Christian population, but I think there’s a useful point here for all.
I’ve set all this up simply to make this observation: I’ve worked on this for many years now, trying to reach maturity in my thoughts and attitudes, as well as in the expression of them, in both word and deed. And in that time, I have certainly learned many lessons. Even if I were to narrow it down to the one particular output of writing (I have surely written some millions of words―though I have no idea how many millions―I find that I frequently make errors of many common kinds, including these:
- Errors of fact
- Errors of logic
- Errors of sourcing and attribution
- Errors of syntax
- Errors of spelling
- Errors of order
- Errors of memory
- Errors of understanding/perception
- Errors of conclusion
- Errors of priority
- Errors of attitude―of willingness to do what is righteous
It’s been somewhere around 23 years since I had the life-changing epiphany one day that “Jack Pelham wants to do the right thing.” I realized that that had become a general truism about myself―even if I still had much to learn about how to do it, and even about what the right thing is in some cases! You should know: I had been heavily gaslighted by many people for a long time―who had been successful in getting me to curb my investigations into reality by accusing me of constantly having bad motives. So this was a huge breakthrough for me when I realized that no, I really did want to do what was right. And that realization would lead eventually to a parting of the ways with the gaslighters (who weren’t as interested in discerning reality as I was)
And I’ve grown quite a lot in all these years later, but even so, I find that I do still mess up in these things. And even as a pretty-good (and poor) writer, I still mess up in these days daily.
The beauty of writing, however, is that if I am diligent, I get as many cracks as I want at editing the thing before I publish it. And you should know: I have already corrected several errors and unclarities (yes, that’s a word―as of right now, at least!) in this article, even as I’m writing it in real time, long before I finish my thoughts and go back to start checking the big picture and editing it as necessary.
And I must say that I find it somewhat disconcerting that after all these years and all these millions of keystrokes, I’m not yet complete/mature in my ability to consistently put out error-free statements, well-expressed in my native language. To be sure, I’m better at it than before―and faster. But still, I am so far from being error-free that it’s quite obvious to me that I will never attain such a status in this lifetime. And because of this, I can respond to James’ assertion, “We all stumble in many ways”, with an unqualified, “You’ve got that right, James!”
The excellence I want―it doesn’t seem to be readily attainable by mere intention and learning and practice. Indeed, there are errors in what I think and write and do that I haven’t even perceived yet―things that someone else could maybe point out to me, and I’d be amazed and embarrassed to learn about myself (but please, bring it on, because I need to know!). So, maybe it’s impossible for me to get it right the first time (all the time―for surely, I do get it right quite often the first time, I’m glad to report, but am just as commonly backspacing and editing, and adding more for clarity.)
Somebody told me once (about something or other) that it’s like having dirty water pipes, for which you have to turn on the water and let it run a long time before it’s washed all the dirt out. And it seems to me that one lifetime is not enough!
But let me be sure to state this, too: I don’t think that the only problem in play here is that stuff is “wrong with me”. That is, I’m not playing the Luther card here: “I am capable of naught but error”―which is a ridiculous statement, self-evidently fallacious and self-defeating. (For if he can’t get anything right, why should we expect him to be right about this assertion?) Yes, surely there’s stuff wrong with me―just as there is also stuff that’s plenty right with me! Rather, what I’m saying is that it simply seems to be the nature of this world, and of us humans, that getting stuff right takes work! And it takes more work than we wish. Indeed, even if we’re better at getting things right than is the average person, it still takes a surprising amount of work to get even half or three quarters right!
The glory is in the editing
The glory, I have learned, is in the editing. It’s in the correcting. It’s in the re-thinking and double-checking. It’s in the looking up of the definitions of the rarer words I have used―to be sure I’ve got the best one. It’s in double-checking my facts (and my memory). It’s in testing my logical arguments and being sure I’ve got them on straight. It’s in stopping to include a source here and there. It’s in checking my attitudes to be sure I’m wanting to be righteous and charitable in all things. It’s even in checking the spelling―which includes double-checking my browser’s internal dictionary when it tells me I’ve spelled a word wrong (for even though it’s right about most things, it doesn’t know everything, either!)
The deeper glory
So yes, the glory is in the editing. But there’s a deeper glory, still. More fundamental than the editing―more “me” than the busy work of making it all right once I’ve typed out the words of what I’m saying. It’s in the willingness to get things right. It’s in the inner disposition. The predisposition, that is. What’s my attitude? What is my desire? What do I want. What kind of person am I?
Well, I am not the kind of person who gets everything just right on the first or second, or even the third time through. But I am (generally) the kind of person who wants it right, and who’s willing to discipline myself to go back over it. Naturally, I do better at this when I’m not too tired or distracted or busy. And on days when I am, I generally just click on the “Save draft” button, and save such posts for another day. (And you should know that I just checked and found that I have 554 such unfinished drafts saved in this blog. Whether they are pieces where the thinking isn’t yet settled, or where the polishing isn’t yet finished, I knew they weren’t ready for publication, so I restrained myself and didn’t publish them. And yes:
knowing how way leads on to way,From The Road Not Taken. Robert Frost. 1915.
I doubted if I should ever come back
I do often go back to finish at least the more recent drafts if they are still on my mind the next day or two. But even when I don’t, I often find myself writing something fresh on the same topic, having forgotten that it had previously been on my mind, and has a perfectly good draft already in the works! But even so, I’m still at work, trying to get my brain wrapped around the realities of this world―and of the next.
Worse in Person
I have to say that I have got it resolutely figured out this year that I am certainly worse in person than in writing. Messier, that is, and more prone to error. For this reason, I have grown to dislike real-time debates―because see (like James) that we (myself included) tend to be messy and inconsistent, and over-reliant on hearsay and memory and on our own understanding of things. What’s the point of hearing two messy people go at it in an environment where they’re trying to win points, rather than to get things just right? I’d much rather a thing be debated in writing!
But even so, I have learned some of the glory in editing Jack in person. That is, I frequently correct myself even in real-time discussions, when I’m alert enough to detect my errors, that is! And better yet, I have learned that there’s beauty in having the sorts of friends who will correct me as they perceive my errors―and in being myself the kind of person who is wise and docile enough to embrace that correction, and to take it as a matter of fact that once again, I have gotten something wrong in real-time, and that I’m going to take a moment in real-time and correct it right there.
The editing has become a way of life. It seems I’ve come to care that much about it. And I don’t think I’m going back to the less-careful life anytime soon. I think that it’s worth it to me to get things right, even if it’s harder work than would be convenient. I certainly know that my friends are worth it to me―to always tell them right, and never tell them wrong―and to always treat them right, and never treat them wrong (even though I’m still learning about this, too―so I’m very sorry to those readers who are aware of wrongdoing from me that I have not yet perceived, or apologized for, or made right.)
But Having Erred…
But having erred, what can a fellah do but to make it right after the fact? What can he do but to re-think it and to correct it and make amends for it and set things right? This is how I arrived at my self-correction ethic, where it just seems reasonable to me that “self-correction is the rightful duty of all humans”.
What right have I to be putting bad information and bad behavior out into this world, and not correcting it? What right have I to do this to other people―and to God, who I believe has put me here to learn and to choose what kind of person I want to be?
It’s a Team Sport
I have learned that self-editing is a team sport. I’ve also learned that most people will not volunteer themselves onto your team, but that you can find some pretty good teammates if you’re willing to seek them out. As I age, I get more and more help from friends, from things like checking my thinking and my attitudes and my righteousness, to helping me plan and execute. I get help with things like:
- My Bible understanding
- Running the community choir I direct
- Navigating the technology of computers and smart phones
- Keeping my own psychology/outlook healthy
Now, I put that list out here, knowing full well that someone who knows me may well be wishing I’d add some other items onto the list! And that’s the risk of vulnerability―which is also worth it, I believe.
Indeed, I find that if I’m really surrendering myself to the external realities into which God had set our lives, then that is itself an attitude of surrender and vulnerability, is it not? And life is certainly better this way than it was before I had embraced this much of this philosophy.
I am very thankful for my friends―my team―and their help. Starting with my wife and son at home―and we are constantly discussing such things!―to my daily Messenger/email friends, it’s quite obvious that Jack is better with help than without. Much better, and much happier. And somehow, at least some of the time, it works out where they draw some benefit from me, too. (Or at least, that is my sincere wish!)
I Can See
I’m 58 years old, and I can see that I’ll always be editing myself for as long as I’m on this Earth. And isn’t that interesting? It’s obvious I’ll not reach perfection here, and so it’s as if the goal shifts from reaching perfection in what I say and do to…
―and let me see if I can say this just right the first time:
…to reaching perfection in my willingness to keep correcting my errors and admitting my faults and making things right when I have wronged someone. It simply seems the right thing to do. Logically right. Morally right. Practically and logistically right.
God said this once, and I love it:
“When people fall down, do they not get up?“God. jeremiah 8:4. NIV.
I love the common-sensical flavor of this. It seems to express, like the insurance commercials, “It’s what you do”.
Well, if James is right―and he is―that “we all stumble in many ways”, then should we not also be busy getting back up in many ways―making things right again?
The Fake “Grace”
Sadly, popular religion makes a big deal out of a “grace” that teaches that we are not obligated to edit ourselves when we are in error. It teaches that God accepts me “just as I am”, and even that it would be a sacrilege for me to try to fix myself―that this would be an affront to the saving sacrifice of Jesus. They have the idea that Jesus died so that I would not have to correct myself. But the way I read it, Jesus died so that I can correct myself! He died so that the people who are actually willing to repent (which means “to change one’s mind”) can be taken to heaven after they die. (And I’m sorry I don’t have the room or the time here to make a case for that.)
So many churches are infected with this twisted version of the gospel, and most of them will not see that it is so. They are hardly self-editors, even though they’ll naturally have some members who are―not because of the church’s teaching and example, but in spite of it.
That is, many there will recognize that Jesus and his teachings are important, but the great majority will not grasp the whole of his teachings, and will not see that he demands their all.
They may edit here and there, but not in every case in which they perceive their errors.
(Please take two minutes to read my earlier piece today, which prompted this one: In Everything )
EPILOGUE: Thirty to Fifty Edits
Well, we’ve made it to the end of this piece, and I wanted to report that, having edited it all I care to do (so far), I estimate (roughly) that I made edits to somewhere between thirty and fifty sentences. And I probably added in another ten or so sentences for clarity here and there―as well as this final epilogue. Editing seems a proper way of life, and especially when one considers the alternative!
(And who knows, dear reader, whether, whenever you read this, I will have been back over it yet another time―or ten―in the meantime!)