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Ways of Seeing by Ruth Farmer: Fictional detective offers real lessons

In the past few months, I have been on binge, reading Louise Penny’s Armande Gamache novels. Gamache is a high-ranking officer in the Sûreté in Quebec. The central setting of the novels is a village called Three Pines. Penny has created in Gamache a man who happens to be in law enforcement. So many detective novels feature detectives who happen to be men or women. It is the job that is important, not life, not being human.
As a reader, I often find many truths in fiction. I found myself gravitating toward Gamache’s often-repeated paths to wisdom:
I don’t know.
I’m sorry.
I need help.
I was wrong.
Armande Gamache learned these paths to wisdom from his mentor in the Sûreté. As he rose through the ranks, he offered these pearls to others in his charge. Some embraced them. Others thought they were signs of weakness. I found them welcome respite. So many protagonists of detective novels exhibit cleverness that masks egotism, disdain for others, and even cruelty or sociopathy. There is something so humane about:
I don’t know.
I’m sorry.
I need help.
I was wrong.
Many years ago, I decided that I had finally become comfortable with saying to myself and (eventually) to others, “I don’t know.” It is interesting to witness people’s responses when I say those words. They are rarely an accepted response and frequently seen as unacceptable. If you don’t know a thing, particularly something within your purview, then what good are you? You are certainly not the perfect person that we need in this position at this time. Say “I don’t know” to someone the next time they ask you an important question requiring a significant answer. Watch their face. What is the first thing they say?
I have seen the dismay, frustration, impatience and even anger on the faces of people to whom I’ve said “I don’t know. They are waiting for more, such as:
I’ll find out.
I’ll get right on it.
It’s not important.
Those qualifiers may not be satisfactory but they suggest that someone (you) will find an answer or take responsibility for not having an answer. A weight is lifted.
The phrase “I’m sorry” is frequently accompanied by additional words that serve as a deflection. When told that they’ve hurt your feelings people often say: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” To me, this means, “I’m sorry that you are forcing me to confront your oversensitivity. Get over yourself.” When told that a sickness has occurred or someone has died: “I’m sorry to hear that” is a stock response to being burdened with someone else’s tragedy.
In the past few months, I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” and nothing more. I am acutely aware that those words sound inadequate alone even though they are true. If I really mean I’m sorry to hear that (as in why are you burdening me with bad news) I stay silent and feel the burden. We cannot always avoid being impacted by others.
As a perfectionist, saying “I need help” is difficult for me. Even thinking those words has sent me into a shame spiral. Somewhere in my psyche, I’ve accepted the U.S.A. mythology of the rugged individualist. I have to pause and accept how implausible that is. I want to be strong, knowledgeable, capable, and I am. Still, I won’t get very far without help.
And finally, I was wrong: How many times have I heard — or said — that phrase with qualifiers, most of the time divesting responsibility:
I was wrong but you …
I was wrong but if they hadn’t …
It is really hard and humbling to simply say, “I was wrong.” Saying “I was wrong and I’m sorry” could lead to a moment of grace.
I don’t know. 
I’m sorry. 
I need help. 
I was wrong. 
Each of those statements can lead to greater connection when offered in honest communication with another. Taken together they could lead to a more harmonious framework for living in this world.
Ruth Farmer is a published essayist and poet. She directs the Goddard Graduate Institute in Plainfield, and is sole owner of Farmer Writing and Editing (ruthfarmer.com).

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