“I’m sorry. I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong.” According to the mentor of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, these are the four sentences that lead to wisdom. Gamache in turn passes these sentences on to the agents he trains, those under his command and tutelage. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a fictional character created by author Louise Penny. I have been reading her books lately and have come to admire her writing. I have taken quite a liking to the character Armand Gamache.
There is something Buddha-like in these words. After reading them, I started thinking about what it would be like to fashion a life, a way of being, around them à la Armand Gamache. If life means suffering, as one of Buddha’s noble truths declares, then perhaps it would be worthwhile to examine what these sentences might entail in practical application, not just in a fictional realm. To what extent might these sentences, these axioms ease suffering?
I’m sorry. There are two ways we utter these two words. First we say it daily, in casual passing with both strangers and acquaintances in situations like approaching a door at the same time as another and both reach for the door handle at the same time, or two people head toward each other in a corridor or shopping aisle on a collision course. Then one’s steps aside and says “I’m sorry,” allowing the other to pass. Or two people both begin to enter or exit an elevator at the same time, then one steps back to allow the other access. We say it so casually that it is a reflex. It is a phrase of politeness, an utterance of civility. The words have become mere syllables to fill empty air. And we rarely say it with meaning, do we? It seems like we don’t say it with meaning nearly often enough. There are certainly many occasions where it might be valuable, and yet our pride or vanity stops us. Or we fear we might reveal too much vulnerability if we were to say it. I’m sorry I was a jerk. I’m sorry I blamed you; it was my fault. I’m sorry I raised my voice in front of our friends. I’m sorry I swore at you; I was really angry at my boss, but took it out on you. I’m sorry I’m grumpy; I’m just frustrated because I’m going through a bad time at home or at work. I’m sorry, I’m feeling my mortality and my knees ache; it isn’t about you at all. I’m sorry; my wife died four months ago and I don’t know how to act around people. If we were to apologize or attach these words when they might apply, some of us might find ourselves repeating them over and over in a single day. My, that might be embarrassing. But it might make us take note – good grief, I’m sorry twenty or more times a day? What does that say about me? What is going on with me? And it might lead to honest reverie, and some soul-searching. And maybe some pain and some unpleasant revelations about one’s self. So heavens, we must avoid that at all costs! Satire intended – this is where a satire or irony font would come in handy. But seriously – saying “I’m sorry” in selected circumstances with real feeling and sincerity to the right person? Think about it. It could make a world of difference.
I don’t know. What is wrong with saying we don’t know? None of us has all the answers all the time. None of us is omniscient. Yet we often rush into a conversation and offer an opinion, or speak as if we are authorities when we have absolutely no earthly expertise on the subject at hand. But we don’t want to appear foolish or uneducated or out of touch. So we rush in and say “I heard on the news that……” Or, “I read in the paper that……” And we aren’t at all sure of our source, yet it sounds pretty good at the moment. I’ve learned that looking foolish is not the end of the world. It can make for a squirmy moment now and then, it can make you blush or flush or leave you flummoxed, but it is not fatal. In fact, some moments of foolishness can be very amusing later in the retelling, like the time I caught a duck, or took the front panel off a gas pump while driving my dad’s car, or the time I got chased by a rooster, if you’ve read some of my other essays. You can even make a joke at the moment of the embarrassing awkwardness, if you are quick, like “I’m sure there is some humor in this; I’m just not seeing it at the moment.” But students don’t want to look foolish or unprepared when called on in class – “I don’t know” because I didn’t read the assignment. “I don’t know” what you mean because you are using words I don’t understand. “I don’t know” can translate to failure, to low self-esteem, to feelings of I-don’t-measure-up. So we don’t utter the words, or we tell a little white lie, or a big falsehood. But when the big falsehoods catches up to you, as can happen more readily than we care to think about, don’t you look even more foolish? Personally, I’d rather look a little foolish now and then, than be though a big jerk in the long run for a reputation of falsehoods and nonsense and crying wolf.
I need help. I think this one is huge. If we taught our young people to say this without fear of recrimination or judgment, might it make a difference? I need help with my math. I need help with my reading; these words are too big, I can’t sound them out, they swim in front of my eyes. I need help with fractions; they make no sense to me. I need help with word problems. Well, maybe in some cases, one might be beyond help. This one stops me in my word processing tracks. The dreaded word problem – two trains leave at the same time, one from Kansas City at 80 mph headed west, and one from Barstow at 74 mph headed east…. I couldn’t master them in grade school. I couldn’t master them in high school. I can’t answer them on the Mensa test (I tried it on the web). I can’t answer them on Jeopardy. I can’t master them in those word teaser puzzles that appear in newspapers and in magazines. I need help. The help doesn’t help in my case. I suppose in some situations, you just have to say “This is beyond me. I need so much help that I have to hire a handyman, or a plumber, or a mechanic.” And thankfully, my life doesn’t depend on two trains meeting in Denver, or which train arrives first, or which train engineer is the most clever or skilled, or how many passengers are wearing green sweaters or Ug boots. I’ve given up caring on that score. Sometimes you just have to do that. I know people who’ve given up on the proper use of “I” and “me” or “lie” and “lay” or “further” vs. “farther.” These I have less difficulty with, but then I remember my difficulty with the dragon word problem, and I try to be more understanding of those needing other kinds of help.
But back to the serious question of needing help. Women tried to do it all and have it all some 30 to 40 years ago. Many came to the slow realization that it can’t be done, and now try to choose their battles judiciously. It is okay to say “I need help setting the table,” “I need help preparing the salad,” “I need help addressing these Christmas cards.” In fact, it has become okay to say “I can’t cook. I’ve called out for food and it is being delivered.” Thankfully, there are some options in the realm of help. And it is okay to say I need a ride to the doctor when some caring soul in your church offers to give you a lift. You don’t have to pretend you have it all handled. I’m frail. You’re frail. We’re all frail. I’m human. You’re human. It goes with the condition of being homo sapiens. And yet, saying “I need help” doesn’t seem to be part of the mantra in so very many cases. Interesting. The sad thing, the real thing, is that at some point we will all – certainly the vast majority of us – need help at some juncture in life. So why not get used to the feel of those words on our lips at an earlier age so they don’t stick in our throats later, at the moment of real need? “I need help. I can’t live alone any more. I need help finding another living arrangement.” I don’t want to say those words, but it might happen one day. Maybe you need help going up and down stairs. But, you don’t want to buy a cane, because you will look frail and vulnerable and people will pity you. Try saying it in the privacy of an empty room, five times. “I need help.” You can say it softly. Take note of how it feels passing your lips.
I was wrong. The eating crow sentence. The humble pie disclaimer. The little sentence the ego can’t abide. The shameful admission for whom the bell tolls. If I admit I was wrong, all my credibility as an expert is suspect. If I am wrong, I will lose face. If I am wrong, I will be disgraced. This is a toughie, I have to admit. And in some settings it can be a matter of life and death – if I am wrong making this incision, the patient might die. If I am wrong connecting these wires, I might be electrocuted. But, for the purposes of this essay, let’s not consider the life or death scenarios. Many of us won’t have to appear in that arena when we admit we were wrong. I was wrong to open my mouth and say something stupid. I was wrong to interrupt the person who was speaking. I was wrong to try to make a joke of a serious situation. I was wrong trying to show off at your party; it was in your honor and I was jealous. I was wrong to make fun of your writing; you write better than I do and I was trying to compete.
So, in the final analysis, I think there is considerable wisdom in these four little sentences. And it takes considerable courage to apply them in meaningful ways. Maybe that is where the real wisdom ties in – not only using them, but carefully deciding when to say them and to whom, how frequently, in which situations. But certainly worth keeping at the forefront of memory, niggling but useful reminders of right behavior and right relations. And finally it reminds me, detractors to the contrary, that reading fiction is not a waste of time. Thank you Armand Gamache. And thank you, Louise Penny.