Joshua Harris
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I have a question for you. Is admitting you're wrong a sign of weakness or a sign of strength? And how hard is it for you to consider that you've gotten something wrong? I'm not talking about small areas. What about when the stakes are high? When what you've gotten wrong could affect your livelihood, or your involvement in a community, or even your own sense of identity? I wish that these questions were just theoretical, but for me, they're very real, very right-now questions that I am wrestling with in a very public way. So let me tell you a little bit of my journey. I could take you to the exact spot, in my parents living room, in Gresham, Oregon, where I knelt down and I prayed this prayer, "God, let me write a book that will change the world." Be careful what you pray for! (Chuckles) I was 20 years old, I was young, I was religiously zealous, I was certain and I was restlessly ambitious. Youth, zeal, certainty, ambition - Not unlike the ingredients of the Molotov cocktail, they have the tendency to set the world on fire. And, in my little corner of the world, that's exactly what happened, because, incredibly, my prayer was answered. I did write a book, it was published and it exploded! It started to sell and sell and sell. The publisher kept writing me, saying: "We're going back to print." It was selling tens of thousands of copies every month. I remember the day that I went into my local Christian book store, and there was my book, the number one, bestselling book in the country. And it stayed there for months. I was on national radio shows, newspaper articles were being written about me and my book. The pinnacle of my 15 min of fame was when I was on the Bill Maher television show, sitting across from a young actor named Ben Affleck. I had a conversation with Batman. (Laughter) My book went on to sell over 1,2 million copies and was translated into dozens of languages. Now, if you were not a part of the Evangelical Christian subculture in the late 1990s, you will not have heard anything about my book. But, if you were growing up in that environment, there is a sense in which my book did change your world. Now, some people would say, "For the better," but there are a lot of people who would say, "For the worst." And there are some that are still really pissed off about that. My book was called: "I Kissed Dating Goodbye - A new attitude towards relationships and romance." I was writing to fellow Christians. I saying: "We need to be serious about our faith, and if we're serious about our faith, we won't have sex until we're married, and if we want to avoid premarital sex, then we should radically change our lifestyle, and that means we should stop dating. Dating is the problem. Dating is a distraction, it's preparation for divorce, it leads to temptation." (Laughter) I was 21. I knew a lot, okay? (Laughter) I should probably mention at this point that I'd been homeschooled my whole life and I'd only been in one serious relationship at this point. (Laughter) Now, you know, there were some things about this book that I still think are good. Some people were helped by the reminder that you don't have to be in a dating relationship to be a complete person. Some people were helped to realize they could take a break from dating and focus on personal development. And I still think that there's a lot that takes place in modern dating that can be really selfish and harmful, and some of that needs to be challenged. But my eyes have really been open in the last few years, to see some fundamental problems in the book that I wrote. You know, I didn't leave room for the idea that dating could be a healthy way of learning what you're looking for in a long-term relationship, that it could be a part of growing personally. I made that the focus, I gave the impression that there was really one formula that you coild follow, and if you followed that, then you would be happily married, God would bless you and you'd have a great sex life and marriage. Obviously, the real world doesn't work that way. But probably the thing that I regret the most is that there was a lot of fear inside of me that I transferred into my writing, and fear is never a good motive: fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else, fear of sex. (Sigh) Yeah. Why did it take me so long to see these problems? You know, I think it was because I was so afraid of being wrong! You know, that book had made me a best-selling author, it had given me an identity, it had make me slightly famous, and it was so easy to just write the critics off as haters, you know, "Those are the haters," and then find people who liked my book and hide behind them. And isn't that the great thing about the Internet? No matter who you are or what you think, you could find someone on the Internet that agrees with you. You could literally be Hitler and find people who think you're doing a good job. But it was so hard for me to face up to being wrong because it felt like I would be saying that a big part of my life was wrong, and I didn't have courage to do that. What helped me to begin to let my guard down was, a few years ago, I stopped being the pastor of a large church and I went back to school. I went to graduate school and I stopped having to be constantly right about everything and defend all these different ideas, and I just became a student who was listening. And I developed relationships with my fellow students, and a lot of them started to share stories with me about the effect my book had had. And many times this was a negative effect, and I couldn't just write them off as angry trolls on the Internet. These were my friends, and so I listened. And then one day, on Twitter, of all places, this woman wrote me, and she said, "Your book was used against me like a weapon." And I almost didn't answer her because I was afraid she would lash out at me, but in this particular day, I just answered and said, "I'm so sorry," such a simple human interaction. And that interaction led to a conversation, and that conversation led to a friendship, and that friendship changed me. She said something to me that I'll never forget. She told me that that back and forth on Twitter was the first time that a religious leader had ever acknowledged getting something wrong, and ever apologized to her. And I heard that and I just thought, "There's something really unhealthy about this." That led me to open up my website and invite people to share their stories, the effect my book had had, and we just published them uncensored on the website. Some of those were stories of people having a positive experience, but others were heart-wrenching. Others were from people who were really angry and hurt. And now I'm in this process of working with a fellow student at my grad school who was a woman who was hurt by my book, growing up, and we're producing a documentary that's sharing the journey of me going back and looking at the book, but also trying to tell a bigger story about how religious communities talk about sexuality, and talk about relationships and what it looks like to face up to moments when we don't get everything right, even when we're well-intentioned. We crowdfunded this and we're giving the film away online, and hoping it will be helpful to someone. It's been such an emotional roller coaster for me, though. You know, there are moments where I feel contrite, and then other moments where I swing over and I'm defensive and I'm mad that people are blaming me for things, and a lot of times I just want to run away from the whole process. But the reason I don't is because I believe that this is the pathway of growth for me, that I'm going to learn things in facing up to what I got wrong that I won't be able to learn any other way. I'm discovering that there is transformational power in admitting that you got something wrong. A couple of things that I'm learning in the process. First, I'm learning that evolution always involves death. You know, we talk about how we want to evolve personally. That sounds great, right? It sounds sophisticated. I mean, who doesn't want to become a smarter, stronger, more loving, compassionate version of themselves? We all want to evolve personally, but think about what evolution requires, when you think about the evolution of the species over generations. There's a lot of death that takes place! Natural selection is a traumatic thing. We talk about the survival of the fittest, but think about all those that were not the fittest, that did not survive? There is death involved. And why should we think that personal evolution would be any different? It's never this painless, clean process. There is a type of death involved. It involves dying to old ways of thinking, it involves dying to old habits, maybe even to old relationships that are keeping us from growing. Evolving personally involves admitting that you got some things wrong, and letting those things die. The second thing that I'm learning is that you can't rush this process of transformation. You can't just rush through it. I think most of us, when we realize we got something wrong, we just want to get through that as quick as possible and get back to feeling right. And the way that a lot of us do that as individuals, or even as organizations, is we just change our behavior, and we don't actually acknowledge that we changed or that we got anything wrong and we want everyone to just kind of pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, or the past. In some cases, when we have to say something about it, we just give these lame apologies. You know the classic line, "If anyone was offended, I'm sorry to anyone who was offended, In other words, it's your fault for being offended. I'm sorry you're offended, right? We just want to get past it, don't really want to deal with all the tension and the messiness of it. We just want to get back to being right. But if you try to rush through that, you're not going to grow. I've been dragging out the process, even doing this documentary, where I'm sitting down across from people who have been hurt by my book, and it sucks! It really does! And yet, it's in that tension of asking these questions and facing up to this that I'm really growing. And it involves asking questions like, "What shaped my thinking?" "What was behind that? How did that express itself? How did that affect other people? And what do I need to learn so that I don't repeat those same mistakes?" Those are hard questions to ask, that don't come instantly, It requires time. Think about a caterpillar. The caterpillar doesn't just one day, instantaneously, sprout wings and become a butterfly. No, a caterpillar literally has to dissolve before it can transform. It forms a cocoon and, within that cocoon, it becomes a caterpillar smoothie - it's not the most scientific explanation - before it can be transformed. When you are admitting that you got something wrong, there are going to be moments where you'll feel like you're dissolving. You know, you'll feel like you're loosing your swagger, your confidence - You may be losing relationships - You may even be lose your sense of self, if you're used to base a lot of your identity in those ideas, or that practice, or whatever it might be. But something new it's being born, so don't rush through it, don't try to skip it. The final thing that I'm learning is that admitting that you're wrong will tick some people off. I wish I could say that you'll just get a bunch of people coming alongside you, patting you on the back and saying, "It's so humble of you to process this." But - expect resistance. And it makes sense, doesn't it? Because there are people in your life who were invested in the old you. There are people in your life who want you to stay the same, maybe because they just love you, love you the way that you are, but also possibly because, if you admit you're wrong, and they agree with you, then by implication they are wrong and don't want to deal with that, so they'd rather you stay the way you are than have to face up to that themselves. So, I mean, if you're in one career, and you decide to switch careers, all the people who helped you get there and invested in you, they are going to take that personally. Or if you're part of an organization, and you begin to question whether you're wrong about ideals and values that are at the core of that organization, that's going to feel like an attack to that organization. They aren't going to like that. It's an interesting thought exercise just the process, you know. If I were to change my mind and admit that I was wrong about X, Y, Z - fill in the blank - where would I get pushback? It could come from family, come from a religious community, come from the business that you're a part of. You know, the hardest part for me, of re-evaluating my book, has been interacting with people who love my book! Because they're so confused, and they're so supportive, and I'm so grateful for them! And yet, as I'm questioning my own book, which I feel like I should be allowed to do, because it's my book - (Laughter) I can tell that they're like, "You're not allowed to do that!" Because they made decisions based on the ideas in my book and they feel like I'm criticizing their life, which I'm not! I'm not at all doing that. And I've really sought to honor them, and respect them, and hear their stories, but at the end of the day I know that I can't be controlled by someone else's viewpoint. I think the big idea that I really want to leave with you is this: I think that a lot of us have been wrong about being wrong. We've been so scared of it, we've been so afraid of it. We've viewed it as weakness. We've viewed it as something that is shameful, and so we've shunned people who've gotten things wrong. You know, "Just fired them, push them aside and find right people!" And it's the right people who are never wrong that we want to follow. We want to have leaders. But think about it, people who are always right, they are not really growing! They can't change! If they're always right and they change, they'll be wrong, You follow me? Now, I think we need to change our thinking and to realize that admitting that you're wrong really takes a form of strength. And so instead of viewing it as a dead end, we should view it as a new start, and instead of shunning people who admit they got something wrong, we should encourage them and invite them to come and share the wisdom that they're learning. You know, the great news - The great news about learning to admit that you got something wrong is that you don't have to be so afraid of being wrong, which means you can move toward people that see the world differently than you and not be so terrified that they might change your mind. It means that you can dream, and dare, and risk, and live. Thank you so much. (Applause)