What are the most difficult things in life? Solving quadratic equations? Learning to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2, finger-perfect? Achieving a feat of physical endurance, like my Irish hero, Tom Crean, who trekked to the South Pole in 1911 with Captain Scott? Anything that takes years of dedication and practice must surely be high up on the list of the most arduous and testing of tasks, accomplishments that push normal human capacity to the limits. Yet, it can be those things that take just a split second that, in reality, can be the hardest things in life to achieve. I have heard it said that the three most difficult things one can set out to attain in life are: (i) to include the excluded, (ii) to return love for hate, (iii) to admit when you are wrong.
I am challenged by each of these three tests daily, but lately, it is resistance of the third one that I see acted out on a world stage. Why is it so very hard to admit when you have done wrong? It seems that the more important and high profile we become (or we think we’ve become), the more difficult it is to say: ‘I was wrong’. We hate to lose face. I was at an event in York this weekend where the speaker was Jayne Senior, a youth worker from Rotherham who, ten years ago, uncovered long-running child sexual exploitation in her hometown. When she went to the authorities to tell them what she had found out, and show them the information she had gathered to corroborate it, nobody wanted to hear. Too horrific, too unbelievable, too difficult to deal with? Who knows why the authorities didn’t act, but they didn’t and, in a last attempt to expose the truth and stop more of it happening, she went to the press. Even now, when all of her carefully collated data and meticulous note taking has proved to be correct, she is still pilloried by some for speaking up. Why can they not admit they got it wrong and, in doing so, heal wounds more quickly?
How is it, with the passage of time, some men and women who didn’t necessarily appear to be the greatest of statesmen, now seem to have been the embodiment of moral strength and courage? Back in 1987, the then President Regan made a television statement on the Iran-Contra scandal, saying, “What should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem… You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes.” I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of the scandal Regan was speaking of, because I don’t know enough about it. However, his statement, taken at face value, seems to be far removed from anything we might hear from most of today’s leaders, not least the person in the position once held by Regan.
George MacDonald, the Scottish author, poet and minister held that, “to be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” Is that at the heart of it? Do we think if we say sorry, that if we admit to getting something wrong, owning a bad decision, that love will ebb? Maybe that is what it boils down to; yet the contrary is true. On April 21, 1961, President John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He said, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan… Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government…” After the speech, Kennedy’s approval ratings soared. Surely there is everything to be gained from taking it on the chin and offering an apology when it is due.
When all else fails, I turn to the bard for wise words. I am never disappointed. Thus said William Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”