Often Wrong; Never in Doubt

A few Thanksgivings ago the Arnold clan made up of the four families, plus guests (no we’re not a part of the southern mafia), gathered under one roof to celebrate the day. The weather was mild enough to enjoy being outside, so when not feasting around the tables, many folks chose to move outdoors. The patio fire pit was blazing and many of us clustered around it. I was standing in close proximity to the fire when someone in the crowd asked the question, “What is Boxing Day?” A smug look of “I got this” came over my face, and I proceeded to offer an explanation. I did sprinkle my history lesson with a little humility by interjecting that I was not sure of all the facts, but I believed Boxing Day to be a celebration of an uprising of Chinese nationalists against colonialism at the turn of the 20th century. That was about as far as I got before my youngest brother began to laugh and said, “You are such an idiot.”

Major powers plan to cut up China for themselves; cartoon in “Punch” magazine; Aug 22, 1899 by J.S. Pughe

The Boxer rebels

Right uprising/wrong holiday. Many Western countries including America and Japan wanted to reconfigure China, slicing up pieces of the country for themselves. These greedy nations referred to the Chinese militants as Boxers since many of the rebels practiced Chinese martial arts.

I should know never to argue with or pontificate before my Mensa Society, big-brained, youngest brother whose encyclopedic knowledge of history, both foreign and domestic, is worthy of a professorship in the Ivy-Leagues. It was the perfect setup. I lobbed him an easy softball pitch and he knocked it out of the park. Now mind you up to that point, I had the crowd in the palm of my hand with my assured answer to the Boxing Day question. My confidence was worthy of a contestant on the game show, “What’s My Line”, where celebrity panelists question three contestants to determine which one was the true professional, thus the title, “What’s my line…of work?” That Thanksgiving Day for a fleeting moment, I proved my acting ability was superior to my historical knowledge.

What’s My Line panelists in 1952

I embraced the family motto, “Often wrong, but never in doubt,” years ago. Facts? Truth? Who needs facts and truth? Facts and truth, as Twain said, should never get in the way of a good story. And while I attribute Mark Twain with that proverb, if truth is what you want, then there are no reliable sources that solidifies the maxim to him. However, if Twain didn’t say it, he should have said it.

I guess the Downton Abbeyers are checking the boxes before giving them to the servants

I ought to have known the Boxing Day origins and purpose. I had to sit through enough episodes of “Downton Abbey” with Kay. While some of the storylines held my attention, after the car wreck that killed off the character of Matthew Crawly so the actor could pursue fatter paychecks from Hollywood, my interest waned. I don’t blame Mr. Dan Stevens who played Crawly for seeking greener pastures; an actor’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.

Boxing Day. What a terrible name for a holiday. It is so pedestrian, so anticlimactic, so void of any Incarnate significance. And something only the aristocrats (1%’ers) would come up with to appease a limited conscience: make the servants wait on you Christmas Day and then give them the following day off with a “box” of treats, a little cash, and my favorite, leftover food. What the servants served their masters the day before, hot off the grille; they got the privilege of eating cold the next day. I hope the cooks were smart enough not to spit in the gravy before they served it to the lords and ladies.

But I don’t just prove the family motto with my slippery command of history. I can be “often wrong, but never in doubt,” in a present day setting. This last Christmas at my middle brother’s house I was so confident in my accusation that he had misplaced the gifts I had brought in from the car, I made a public declaration to that effect before the entire family as we searched the house. When the hunt proved futile, Kay suggested I go back to our car for a second look. You guessed it. I should have snuck back into the house and slipped them under the tree and then acted surprised to have found them in so obvious a place. “Oh, there they are.” Now I could have acted that one brilliantly, but no, the truth was brought to light, and the middle brother got his last laugh.

I have been the self-imposed victim of such public ignominy, before audiences large and small, for years. I’ve become so accustomed to those moments that I am no longer embarrassed by them. I just quote the family motto and take a bow. I know how to take a bow. I get paid to take bows, but only after a job well done, and I can do mortification well. It just goes to prove that we all need fact checkers. My siblings, my wife, my daughters and sons-in-law, my fellow actors, yea verily, the majority of my entire community have done the honors of busting my “never in doubt” bloviations with the facts. It always brings laughter and pleasure.

Oliver Sacks; photo by Luigi Novi; Brooklyn Book Festival; 2009

Dr. Oliver Sacks once wrote of a panel he was on where the topic of discussion was information and communication in the twenty-first century. An internet pioneer was proud of the fact that people, including his daughter, had access to information no one could have imagined a few decades before. Sacks said that while one might be “…stocked with wide-ranging information, that was different from knowledge.” And I would add that such knowledge and information does not guarantee a gaining of wisdom.

We humans are easily bewitched. We prefer perceptions over facts and truth. St. Paul wrote how we will gather around us a great number of teachers to say what our “itching ears want to hear.” And how we humans “will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

The Apostle Paul; Rembrandt; 1635

I know took a somber turn there, but I am reminded by my numerous “often wrong, but never in doubt” blunders epitomized in this family motto that I want people around me to tell me the truth, speak truth into my heart and mind, even when it is painful to hear and perhaps more painful to correct. An ancient Hebrew proverb says it best, “Better an open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” The impermanence of life is all around us, and at the end of the day what we are left with are memories. May our memories be full of truth, truth that corresponds with reality and honest relationships, truth that provides a balm to our soul and gladness to our heart.

Cover Art: French political cartoon; Henri Meyer, Illustrator; 1898