For Christmas, a friend sent me a pleasant book with well-known facts that everyone gets wrong. For example, “Where is Scotland Yard?”
The answer is “Scotland Yard is in England.”
Another example of a question is, “Where in the Bible is gambling condemned?” It turns out that it isn’t — but excessive love of money and trying to get rich too fast are indeed frowned upon in that famous source.
We have all heard the expression: “Don’t bother me with facts!” Indeed, with cell phones and computers, we are constantly bothered by facts.
During conversation, you may wonder “Who won the World Series in 1936?” Bam, two seconds later, someone checks on his cell: “Yankees.”
The reality is, facts have become more of a bother than ever.
One curious thing about us human beings is that we can spend much time, as it were, getting it wrong. At first sight, this possibility of our erring or sinning might indicate that something is wrong with the world or with us in it. But if we could never get anything wrong or do anything wrong, we could not be the kind of odd beings we are. We are best described as fallible. The drama of each of our existing lives is carried out within this context of our finiteness and fallibility.
The other side of this principle is that we sometimes get things right and know that we do. This knowledge usually entails realizing that we were wrong at some point. With this realization comes the responsibility to acknowledge the principle that was right. This possibility means that we are beings who can correct ourselves if need be, as it often is.
The question next arises: Do we want to be right solely by virtue of our own assertion? If the basis on which we are right is simply our own opinion, then we logically cannot disagree with anyone else who affirms the opposite of what we maintain. In other words, are there principles or standards that would not simply be what we say but what we discover, standards that are found in the nature of things?
In this latter case, our discussions are not simply about our opinions but about what we can grasp and understand in common.
Take the question of justice, something we probably learn before we learn anything else. It is a pretty demanding virtue. Plato worried about whether the world was created in justice. If not, nothing much mattered.
To give another example, in a “Peanuts” television special while Linus is at summer camp, his sister Lucy uncharacteristically sends him a care package.
Charlie Brown, Lucy’s neighbor, is seen running excitedly across the lawn, shouting: “Look Lucy, I got a letter from Linus.”
Her response is ominous: “That blockhead; he never wrote to me.”
Charlie reads from the letter while Lucy listens with a big frown on her face. She shouts again, “He wrote to you, but he didn’t write to me! That blockhead.”
Now, Lucy is not the easiest character to deal with. Linus is more of an innocent, an enthusiast, even a visionary. Lucy believes in reciprocal justice. I give you this; you give me that. She wants her own letter from her brother. What is he doing writing to the loony neighbor kid before writing to her?
How do we get this scene right? It is, if we think about it, an issue that confronts each of us almost every day in one form or another. We feel slighted. We do not get what we think is our due. This sense of outrage sours our souls.
Can Lucy really in justice demand her own letter? If she receives a letter knowing that the only reason Linus wrote her is because she would slug him if he did not, is the letter worth much? The best things are beyond justice.
Does it make any difference if we cannot get it right? No, only if we choose to not get it right. Then it makes all the difference in the world. Indeed, the world exists that such final choices can be made within its confines.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor in the government department. Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternate as the writers of AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … which appears every other Friday.