- People can more easily see the holes in others' arguments rather than their own.
- Poking holes in one's own story is often thought to imply insecurity and weakness, but people can benefit from healthy self-skepticism.
I stomped around the kitchen, snatching up leftover lunch plates and shoving them in the dishwasher.
“Rude. Rude. Rude.”
I slam the dishwasher closed and whip around to face my husband Jim. “Who comes to a person’s house on Thursday for lunch and stays for 3 hours and 15 minutes?”
Jim looks at the clock. “Was it three—?”
“Plus… these people are strangers!”
“Well,” Jim starts to object, attempting to insert a bit of reason into my righteous frenzy, “they’re not really strangers. I’ve known Malcolm and Cricket since college—"
“Yes, but they are strangers to me. That’s the point. Malcolm and Cricket are strangers to me who trapped me, who forced me to play hostess for three and half hours—
“Well, I don’t know that they forced you—"
“What else was I going to do? They had me in their clutches. I was their captive people-pleasing audience. I had no choice but to spend my afternoon listening to Malcolm and Cricket recite for me their laundry list of accolades.”
“Things are going well for—"
“They force-fed me their accomplishments.”
“I think they just wanted to share their good news.”
This is an embarrassingly accurate transcription of a fight my husband Jim and I had in our Los Angeles home last Thursday at 1 p.m. I felt our guests, Jim’s college friends, had overstayed their welcome and that my husband was remiss in not helping me rectify the situation. He should have, I felt, found a way to put a conclusive end to our everlasting lunch.
Support for My Righteous Indignation
My argument, which at the moment I was highly convinced was sound, is as follows.
- A guest who is unfamiliar with the hostess of a daytime weekday lunch event should conclude the event themselves. Much before the 3-hour and 15-minute mark. This is true for Los Angeles and on earth.
- I, Maggie, was in a bind with no escape. I had no option in the situation but to continue the social engagement. I was trapped.
- People should never share their accomplishments unless directly asked. Even then, they should defer until directly asked a second time. This part of my argument is certainly peculiar to my upbringing. In my family, “braggy” was the worst thing one could be. My parents like to joke that my sister and I’s first words were “mama,” “dada,” “baba,” and “ostentatious.”
The Flaws in My Argument
This tripartite case of mine is riddled with logic holes, unquestioned assumptions, and the absurd conviction that my personal feelings are reflective of universal law simply because I feel them. I would have been no more certain of the validity of my stance if God Him/Herself had whispered in my ear, “You are absolutely correct, Maggie. No stranger who comes into your home on a weekday for lunch should stay for 3 hours and 15 minutes. Two hours at most. (I didn’t have room for it in the commandments.)”
On what was otherwise a pleasant Thursday afternoon in sunny Los Angeles, I went to battle with my husband over a violation of what I felt to be a universal law, forgetting that no authority but my own had ever proclaimed this law to be true or applicable in any way. And I dare say I’m not the only one who regularly fails to question their grounds for battle.
We’re good at questioning others. We can spot their logic errors, leaps in proofs, projections, generalizations, misrepresentations of events, and conflation of disparate ideas. But our own arguments seem unassailable, our logic airtight, and our wounds feel so clearly to be the result of unprovoked, undeserved personal attacks. We fall for our own stories, hook, line, and sinker as if there were some a priori axiom that if everyone would just understand it correctly, would prove that we are in the right and that our political enemy or husband is well, simply an idiot.
The fight with Jim was one in which I believe I needed to poke holes in my own story. I think most everyone could get better at poking holes in their own stories. In our country especially, we’ve received so little instruction. Our culture demonizes the great art of calling bullsh*t on oneself, smearing it with names like “insecurity” and “weakness.”
But the biggest obstacle to poking holes in your own story is that instinctively nobody wants to do it. It’s certainly the last thing I want to do when I’m having an argument. In the heat of disagreement, admitting to a blind spot feels like being a boxer giving himself a roundhouse to the face.
So if I’m going to do it, it would help to have some encouragement—some heroes who publicly, courageously attack their own viewpoints with the mental weaponry sharpened on their adversaries. But these heroes are hard to find. Especially recently, it seems. Our heroes, to say the least, have not prided themselves in their scathing self-inventory, have not peacocked their ability to catch their own spoken fallacies and prejudices. I don’t see many determined to root out their own unconscious schemes to deceive themselves, those lesser strategies we all engage in to protect ourselves from a scary world.
Don't Believe Everything You Think
So, I’m trying on my own. I am working to foster a healthy sense of self-skepticism. My personal mantra is, “Don’t believe everything you think.” It’s also my bumper sticker.
If they sold “Poke Holes in Your Own Story” bumper stickers, I would stick one of those on my car as well.
I managed to stop myself that Thursday afternoon in the middle of Jim and I’s brewing post-lunch spat, sigh, and say, “Well, to be fair, I guess I could have just said, "You guys keep hanging. I’m going to get some work done.”
Jim smiled. “Well, yeah, you probably could have. I’m sure they would have been fine with that."
“Yeah… and they were probably just having a good time hanging out and wanted it to continue.”
“Absolutely. And you do that people-pleasing thing where you appear to be having the time of your life. Even I can’t tell sometimes.”
I think back over the lunch itself as I look out on the small patio where our group had been sitting, then turn back. “But Malcolm and Cricket did talk themselves up quite a bit.”
“Oh God, so braggy.”
“Yeah, so I was right about that.”
“Right? I was right about that, right?”
“You were right.”
I gently lift the dishwasher door, snap it closed, and think, “I can’t let him win them all.”