Being Wrong and Holding onto Hope
I tell myself stories. They are usually harmless assumptions about why people do, say, or believe certain things which are confusing or cause me distress. The stories can be positive or negative. When telling myself a story I usually try to make it a good one. I recognize my storytelling arises out of uncertainty, my desire for connection, and to feel safe in the world. Isn’t that where most of our delusional thinking originates? It’s challenging to tell myself good stories when bombarded with news highlighting the numerous global crises and injustices occurring around the world.
I struggle to believe that the world is getting better when war, violent crime, corruption, genocide, poverty, racial injustices, human trafficking, and disrespect for human life still exist. It’s overwhelming. After reading, Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything, by Bobby Duffy, I was encouraged by the hope he offered that most social realities are improving. Duffy writes, “The reality of how the world is now and how it has changed are both better than we think.” This statement doesn’t mean that the above atrocities don’t require attention. However, assuming that most things are improving is possibly a more accurate and helpful view of the world. Duffy warns, “…too pessimistic a view of how things are changing can cause extreme reactions, where we rip up what’s been achieved because we are blind to the progress we have made.” Hope is an essential foundational truth as I engage with a world caught in the tension between good and evil. Hebrew 10:23 states, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” Faith doesn’t deny the harsh realities of life – it moves me toward them with hope. A more positive outlook frees me to engage. I also have hope because of the real-life stories of transformation I have encountered amid traumatic and complex social circumstances.
My NPO addresses the needs of ministry leaders in Southeast Asia as they face the demanding spiritual and social challenges across the region. Many of the atrocities mentioned above impact these leaders in diverse and profound ways. As I was researching this week, I came across some encouraging statistics that not only bolstered my hope but provided reliable statistical information. In 1970 there were 51 million Christians in Southeast Asia. As of 2020 that number rose to 153 million. Christianity in this region has increased more rapidly than any other religion over the last half century at a rate of 2.2% each year. That is hopeful information. I am thankful for these facts as I no longer need to guess. The reality is that this growth came during a time of great social, political, and economic upheaval. For Example, it is estimated that 1.5 – 2.5 million Cambodians died by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot Regime. Christianity was effectively wiped out between 1975-1979. Today 3% of the Cambodian population is Christian and the Cambodian Church has become a catalyst for the healing of the nation. Some things have changed for the better. The good news stories and the bad news stories exist together.
By design, we humans are constantly making connections and searching for meaning. I can easily make poor connections and jump to wrong conclusions. As Duffy says, “We naturally look for patterns and bestow them with meaning when there may well be none.” I did this more often than I care to admit when I lived in Southeast Asia. Taking the perspective that I didn’t know how things worked (I really didn’t) and admitting when I was wrong was both freeing and humbling. It was uncomfortable to have my “wrongness” pointed out because it didn’t match the cultural norms. As I engage with my project I must take the same stance, let go of my own stories, and challenge my delusions.
The Misperceptions Index was insightful and instructive. The chart shows the difference between the average guess and reality among 13 nations. The US came in at a whopping 90% wrong! It reminds me of something Simon Walker touched on about leaders needing to “tread lightly” when expressing opinions. In my multicultural context, a strong opinion wields a lot of power and should be used with caution, if at all. With regards to my NPO, I am an outsider with an insider perspective. I will never be Indonesian, Singaporean, Cambodian, or Vietnamese. Though I have shared experiences with my dear friends in Southeast Asia, their realities and perceptions are different than mine. I am aware of the personal cost and sacrifices these ministry leaders have made over the last few decades. I want to listen to understand and hold the experiences of these ministry leaders as safely and as accurately as I can. I am not the expert, they are! My guesses are likely to be 90% wrong! I am responsible to sort out the facts, check my own biases, and engage diverse perspectives.
Bobby Duffy states, “An appreciation of how different other people are, and how misguided we can be about ourselves, is important in forming a more accurate view of the world.” I cannot assume that my experiences and what I perceive in any given situation is all I need to make sense of the world. I’m grateful to have spent so many years living among people who think, feel, and respond differently than me. That experience has broadened my perspective and proven just how wrong I can be. I think that’s a good thing!
 Bobby Duffy, Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2018), 21.
 Bobby Duffy, Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything, 231.
 Kenneth R. Ross, Francis D. Alvarez, and Todd M. Johnson, ed. Christianity in East and Southeast Asia. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020), 13.
 Kim-Kiok Kwa and Samuel Ka-Chieng Law, Eds., Missions in Southeast Asia: Diversity and Unity in God’s Design. (Carlisle, Cambria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2022), 16.
 Kenneth R. Ross, Francis D. Alvarez, and Todd M. Johnson, eds. Christianity in East and Southeast Asia, 12.
 Kim-Kiok Kwa and Samuel Ka-Chieng Law, Eds., Missions in Southeast Asia: Diversity and Unity in God’s Design, 18.
 Bobby Duffy, Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything, 210.
 Ibid., 209.
 Simon P. Walker, Leading out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership. (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions LTD, 2007), 38.
 Bobby Duffy, 233.
12 responses to “Being Wrong and Holding onto Hope”
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One of my favorite quotes from Duffy’s book was “We’re storytelling animals, who remember vivid anecdotes far more readily than boring statistics.” So you’re absolutely right that we all tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of the world. Brene Brown talks about this too, and I find it helpful vocabulary. I’ve started asking myself (and my family) “What is the story you’re telling yourself right now?” It tends to reveal worries, doomsday thinking, or whatever is holding me back a lot quicker than any other tool I’ve used.
All that said, I wonder what stories your NPO stakeholders might be telling themselves. How could you get at that question with them? I know asking directly isn’t always appropriate in Asian contexts. What do you think?
Hi Kim, We use that question, “What is the story you’re telling yourself right now?” a lot in our family as well. It has context because half us our counselors. Even with counseling clients here in the US I have to be careful about using that question too soon. Often, I start our with something like, “I am wondering if you can imagine with me other scenarios that might be true?” I have to give them space to think for themselves what alternatives might be out there. No one likes to confront their stories and delusions. There is some relationship building and psycho-ed that needs to happen before I personally would use that question. It doesn’t take long for clients to see the humor of it and quickly move on to new thinking. With my stakeholders, I want to make it safe to tell their stories. Speaking them out in a non-judgmental setting opens up a lot of space for reflection. I am more likely to tell stories of how I tell myself stories to introduce the concept. I heard Brene Brown speak in Singapore to auditorium full of young college students. They were very engaged with what she had to say about emotions and stories. One young student shared in tears how the stories she believed had impacted her negatively. I had never seen that before! I may be too cautious. I think the younger generation is much more willing to talk about their feelings and share their stories.
I had to engage in this conversation thread. There is so much to say about being culturally aware of how one asks quesions and counsels in global contexts, but, Jenny, your response to Kim’s question is a great takeaway for my coaching toolkit for anyone I coach.
“Often, I start our with something like, ‘I am wondering if you can imagine with me other scenarios that might be true?’ I have to give them space to think for themselves what alternatives might be out there. No one likes to confront their stories and delusions.”
You are right. We all need space to think and allow the Holy Spirit to uncover faulty thinking so that our delusions can be confronted.
Thank you, Jenny, for another powerful post.
Like you mentioned, I too find it hard to hear all that is going on in the world while simultaneously remembering to hold unswervingly to hope. It usually is a process of time for me. . . I hear something, consider it, ponder it a bit, entertain “what-if” kind of thinking and then a Gentle Whisper reminds me of the hope I have and brings me back to reality. The real life stories of transformation and healing bring me hope too. How do you find that your Southeast Asia friends and family hold unswervingly to hope? What can American learn from their perspective?
For many Christians in Southeast Asia, particularly in the poorest and most persecuted countries, faith in Jesus is their only hope. There is no escape from the harsh realities of their environment. I remember my husband coming home from meeting a pastor in a closed country. He had asked him how he endured the persecution his family and church faced. His response, “I am a Christian! I will do what God calls me to do. The government will do what they want.” His hope was not resting on a favorable outcome. He simply trusted God and expected persecution. He wasn’t looking for it. It was simply the cost of living out his faith.
Jenny, I appreciate this line in your post: ”
As I engage with my project I must take the same stance, let go of my own stories, and challenge my delusions.”
My question is this: Is it possible to let go of our stories as we do our research? As we probe and ask questions? I like your NPO!
I don’t know if it is so much letting go of my stories as being aware of them. My stories are still valid. My NPO came out of my owns stories as well as of my stakeholders. The project is not for me. It is for them. It’s really their project. I’m really just the facilitator. Of course, I need to let go of the stories I tell myself that are not true. I am concerned that my own set of experiences and coming from a western mindset I might miss what they are really saying. So setting aside my story, asking open ended questions, and listening while they process is what I am aiming for. Does that make sense? I hope I am not alone in that my brain likes to make connections back to my own story! It’s a lot of work to set it all aside.
You are so right! The skill you are explaining is what we learn to rise up to in mediation. Becoming a “neutral” and holding mediation sessions has helped me more than other tasks in detaching myself from my own narratives so I can truly lean in and listen to others. In all fairness, I am not sure how else we can relate to others without our identity stories.
Jenny, I also wrestled with Duffy’s ultimately more positive view of the world — that things aren’t as bad as they may seem and that good achievements have contributed to progress in many areas. But as I thought Duffy’s positive take, I thought of question #2 in the New City Catechism: “What is God?” Answer: “God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything.” There are indeed some horrible atrocities that have and are taking place (and you highlighted some of them), yet God’s grace is very much at work. And there are good stories to tell (as you mentioned). He has not abandoned his creation. He is both the creator and the sustainer, and he involves people like you to partner with him in hard places.
You quoted Duffy: “An appreciation of how different other people are, and how misguided we can be about ourselves, is important in forming a more accurate view of the world.” Are there some particular ways you have experienced this in your own world and life view formation, in your work with ministry leaders in Southeast Asia?
My world/life view began forming as a teenager being exposed to other cultures and the experiences of other people around the world. I had friends in Jr. high and high school who were refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, a youth pastor who was an MK, and then I worked with retired missionaries in college.
In terms of what I learned and appreciated living in Southeast Asia and from ministry leaders in particular… the thing that impacted me most was the generous and warm welcome I received and witnessed. Their hospitality is incredible. Hearts and homes are so open with meals and fellowship together being a priority. People really enjoy being together and are invested in one another. I think food is a love language in that region! The food is amazing! To be welcomed into that type of fellowship was a beautiful experience. Every church we started began in our home with multiple gatherings each week. We adopted their open door style. It has been surprisingly hard to recreate that here in the US. Southeast Asians are more communal, not so individualistic.
In terms of leadership, a more collaborative and consensus building approach is common. There are exceptions, of course. The ministry leaders I know in Asia actively serve in their communities and neighborhoods. They tolerate and respond to suffering better than we do in the west, at least that is my perception.
Living overseas, it was eye-opening to see how Americans are viewed. It can be rather mixed and very humbling. I went into the experience knowing I was going to be wrong about many things and sincerely wanted to learn. I wasn’t there to change them, but I got changed in the process.
I hope that answers your question. Those are few things that come to mind.
A nice read. You wrote, “I cannot assume that my experiences and what I perceive in any given situation is all I need to make sense of the world. I’m grateful to have spent so many years living among people who think, feel, and respond differently than me. That experience has broadened my perspective and proven just how wrong I can be. I think that’s a good thing!”
This is brilliant. And humble.
I too feel like an outsider with a partial (Hungarian and Slovak) insider perspective. My wife, Trudy, has mentioned that Hungarians treated us like 3rd Graders (the level of our language).
It was freeing to be mostly “wrong” in the cultural interactions of the day. I could blame my ineptness on being an “American.” I guess living overseas gives you that perspective.
Coming back to the U.S.A. came with its own culture shocks and bumps.
As we go through our readings, I enjoyed Duffy’s recital of European Immigration “close mindedness.” Apparently, ‘nativism’ is a human (and not only US) trait.
I like his conclusion (chapter 4) were he calls for a balance of story telling and facts to help dispel the delusions.
Thank you for your comments. I think reverse culture shock was worse. Here in the US I am expected to know what’s going on but I have a lot of gaps to fill in. I also had different experiences and perspectives. I was afraid to speak up the first few years back for fear of being misunderstood.
Finding balance with story telling and facts for me means I need to hold my story lightly and maybe other’s stories as well. We all have our own perspective and vantage point… a mixture of correctness and wrongness. I wonder how we can bring our stories and facts together to create a more accurate story.