On Not Getting What You Deserve?
This may come as a shock to you, but I’m not always right. It’s certainly always a shock to me. It reminds me of when Abraham Lincoln disagreed with Ulysses S. Grant’s tactics for taking Vicksburg, the fortress on the Mississippi that would be key to a Union victory in the Civil War. Grant took full responsibility for whatever happened but said he was going forward with his plan. After he took Vicksburg, Lincoln wrote him a short letter that has become famous, ending with the extraordinarily gracious line, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln”.
Years ago I taught at a college in Arkansas. It was located about a mile out of town, where there’s room for something with that kind of footprint. I left one day, turning right onto the two-lane highway that fronted the college. A pickup was coming from the left, but it was a good distance away and I had plenty of room. But here’s the thing—I didn’t. The pickup driver had to brake fairly substantially. We didn’t collide, but that was only because he was alert.
Half a mile up the road I pulled into the left turn lane and he pulled up beside me and there was lots of cross traffic that didn’t stop, so I was stuck. The guy looked over and motioned for me to crank my window down. I’d spent the whole time approaching the stop sign scrambling mentally for some way that my error wasn’t a mistake, or wasn’t mine. It was his fault! Somehow. But here he was, motioning at me, and I leaned over and cranked the passenger window down, thinking that okay, I had made a mistake, but I’m a nice person and I didn’t deserve what I was about to get.
When I’d lowered the window he shouted over, “Ma’am, your rear tire is flat. That’s why you couldn’t pick up speed like you thought you would.” His voice softened as he said, “I need you to promise me you’ll drive straight to Johnny’s or I’m going to worry about you all day.”
Oh. That wasn’t what I was expecting. I thanked him and drove to Johnny’s, the only auto shop in town, and got the tire fixed.
I still think about that man, years later. When I was cranking my car window down, I thought I didn’t deserve what I was about to get—and I was right. He didn’t focus on what I did wrong but on what would help going forward, not on my decision to turn in front of him when there was nobody behind him, but on what I could do to keep the road safe that afternoon. I met Jesus, and he was driving a pickup truck in Arkansas.
As we come out of the pandemic, I want to remember that I’m going to make some mistakes, and so are you. I pray for the wisdom to point out the flat tires, not the errant drivers. And for the grace to say, “You were right, and I was wrong.”
Katie Kennedy teaches college history and writes for children. Her most recent book is The Constitution Decoded: A Guide to the Document that Shapes Our Nation. She lives in Marshalltown and attends Hope United Methodist Church.