how I was right and wrong at the same time

I spend most of my weeks trying to be right. At work, at home, with friends, with family. It feels good to be in the right, doesn’t it?

Whether it’s a mechanical question like, “How do I know if my engine’s burning oil?” Or a relational question like, “What do I say to my grieving friend?” it’s nice to have the answers. Competency is among the most fulfilling feelings, in my opinion. To feel competent is to feel skilled, wise, accomplished, trusted, sought after, all in the same moment. Who doesn’t like that?

In fact, I like to appear in the right so much that sometimes, I make stuff up. It’s probably the one thing I do that embarrasses my wife, Erin, more than anything else. I’m a terrible actor on camera, but on life’s stage, I’m an Oscar-winner. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

Erin and I were hiking through the Vail Valley on a sweltering summer day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so when we left the exposed prairie for the shaded shelter of the evergreens, we sat on the trunk of a fallen pine tree for a water break. Shortly thereafter, I grew restless and opened my pocket knife. As I began to pick and peel away the bark with my blade, a middle-aged woman with an enduring scowl and the presence of your fifth-grade lunch lady emerged from a bend in the trail. Immediately, she fixed her gaze on my woodcarving.

Clearly agitated, she approached me, folded her arms, and chided, “Hey! You shouldn’t be doing that, you’re harming the tree. Stop!”

I looked up from the trunk, partly bewildered, and completely uninterested in being told I was in the wrong. Carving a dead and decomposing tree wasn’t hurting anyone, right? I held my tongue, hoping she would move along.

A moment later, she quipped with biting sarcasm, “What are you, some type of botanist?” 

Seeing no National Forest Service patches on my critic’s outfit — much less any justification for chastising me — I decided to turn the tables on her.

“Why yes, I am,” I replied without skipping a beat. “I’m studying the cohabitation of plants and insects at Texas A&M. The high sierra beetles have really decimated this region, so I’m trying to establish a cause of death for this spruce. Are you aware of the beetles in this area, mam?”

“Oh, well, no. I’m not,” she quickly apologized.

“That’s surprising. They’ve grown pretty aggressive in recent years,” I continued my charade. “We’re just hoping that with enough research and early action we can stop the spread.”

I glanced at Erin as she buried her face in her hands, mortified. 

“Have a nice day,” the lunch lady groaned as she moved up the trail. 

Once she was out of earshot, Erin lifted her head to comment, “Nate! I can’t take you anywhere!” She wasn’t thrilled, but I was quite pleased. I smiled wider than a kindergartner holding a fishing pole hooked to a six-inch bass.

Somebody tried to back me into a corner, and I emerged the victor. I was in the right — even if I’d made some (or all) of it up.

The irony of my botanist impersonation is that my want (and borderline need) to be right often finds its root in Imposter Syndrome. It’s the shadow cast by my driven, ambitious personality.

Imposter Syndrome is a pervasive fear that someday, I’ll be found out. The world will discover that any accomplishment I may have once claimed was happenchance, the mere byproduct of sweet serendipity. I suppose one can have a healthy dose of Impostor Syndrome, like a glass of red wine. I overdose, however. Getting drunk on accomplishment numbs feelings of inadequacy.

Now, I won’t detail what I perceive those accomplishments to be, because that’s not the point here. The point is that if I’m on top, I can’t be called out. I can’t be condemned if I’m on the king’s throne. So, figuring out how to be in the right proves to be my coping mechanism. 

The trouble is that always trying to be right is like bringing a treadmill to a marathon — it gets you nowhere. It’s a hopeless endeavor without an end. Life’s a long race, and more often than not, we all make mistakes.

So, the mantra I’ve tried to adopt (not always successfully) is, “Do right, don’t be right.”

“Do right” lets me screw it up, so long as I make it up.

I share all of this as context for a story of the time I was both right, and wrong, in the same moment. I was equally correct and mistaken, contemporaneously.

While it may sound like this was a somewhat rare occurrence, it happens fairly often. It’s a weekly phenomenon, in fact. Your weeks may be just the same. On this particular occasion, a grumpy hiker wasn’t my issue.

Instead, I was embroiled in a dispute with a negligent painter I’d contracted.

To set the stage, being a first-time homeowner is exciting. Replacing junction boxes and hanging cabinets are, perhaps surprisingly, all things I enjoy. I like figuring out the answers to life’s issues; I feel capable when I do. Buying a home was like a playground full of problems to solve.

If you’ve never bought a house, have you bought furniture from Ikea? Did you enjoy setting it up? Did you try to build it without looking at the instructions? Buying a home (at least buying a dated, country-antique-styled home) is like buying eight pieces of Ikea furniture that are all missing their instructions. You just figure things out as you go.

After we closed on our house, we gave ourselves one month to complete some of the major renovations that would be easier without furniture standing in the way – flooring and painting, in particular. We ripped up carpet and tack strips late into the night. I hauled cases of flooring from our local Home Depot. But when it came to painting, it was going to be too big of a job for me to complete within our move-in timeline, unless I had help. The yellow-and-green color scheme had to go, so I invited four different painters to give us an estimate. 

One of the painters, Jim, stuck out to us. He was willing to go the extra mile by including spackling and repairing holes without billing us for the extra time. Jim explained he was a new business owner, and his crew was very experienced, so if he didn’t keep them busy with new projects, he wouldn’t retain them. I could empathize. We talked about the plight of growing small businesses, and our shared sense of struggle sealed the deal for me.

“The guys are going to be excited to hear this,” Jim smiled. “When do you want us to start?”

Jim and his crew finished painting on a Thursday evening, so Erin was planning to see the new blue-grey color scheme after work on Friday. However, a snow storm hit Denver and shut her in our apartment that Friday night, while I was in San Diego for the weekend.

On Sunday morning, after the snow had cleared up, and as I waited to board my flight to Denver, Erin called. “Nate! Nate!” her voice cracked as I slipped on my headphones. 

“E, what’s up?” I wasn’t sure if she was panicked, or if there was static in our connection.

“Icicles are hanging from our faucets, and all the toilets have ice blocks in them!”

I froze, standing in the middle of the airport walkway. “What? How’s that possible?” I asked.

My mind raced, considering the possibilities. Our house had dropped in temperature while I took a few days to setup our utility services, so I was positive I’d set the thermostat to a balmy 70 degrees before I left for San Diego.

“All our windows are wide open! The heat’s turned off!” Erin declared.

It had to be the painters, I thought to myself. But why would they do that?

“There’s paint smeared in the bathtub, and it’s speckled on the kitchen island — I’ll send you pictures. Nate, this had to be the painters,” Erin confirmed my suspicion.

“What should I do?!” She asked as she started to close the windows.

Erin was panicked because frozen pipes mean burst pipes, burst pipes mean flooding, and flooding means moldy drywall and warped hardwood. I looked at my watch as I guided Erin to shut off the water main in the basement. My flight was boarding soon.

“Just hang tight now, E. This is Jim’s mess. He needs to help fix it.” I called Jim after I hung up with Erin, but I didn’t get an answer. Answer your phone, I texted before calling again.

Jim picked up on my second call. “Jim, hey, it’s Nate. Listen, your guys left our house a mess. The windows were wide open and the heat was off. Our pipes are frozen solid.”

“How’s that possible?” Jim said, genuinely shocked. “My guys don’t leave a job site like that.”

“Well, they did. Had they not left paint smeared around the house, I might have believed you.”

“I just, I can’t believe that.”

“Jim, my wife’s at the house, crying, scared of flooding. I need you to get over there.”

“Okay, yes, I’m on my way now.”

Boarding had already started, so I walked up to the gate and flashed my “A” position boarding pass. After the agent scanned my phone, I called our real estate agent, Eric.

“Eric, I’m glad you answered, I really need your help,” I said as I quickly explained the situation.

“Oh man, I’m so sorry Nate,” Eric said. “I’ll call T.J., he’s the best plumber I know.”

Jim had left the house by the time I arrived to meet Erin. I didn’t bother to drop my backpack, I just walked from room to room, watching ice melt from our P-traps and faucets.

Erin and I sat on our stairs, wondering what would come of our new house as we waited for T.J. the plumber. I really didn’t want to replace moldy drywall.

“Hello? Hey, I’m T.J. I hear you guys have some frozen pipes?” T.J. said as he walked in.

“Yes, hello T.J. Thanks for coming,” I stepped down from the staircase to shake his hand.

“Well, I’ll make sure you’re not in any immediate flood danger tonight, checking everything out visually. I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon when I have all of my gear to run a full inspection.” 

T.J. walked through the house for twenty minutes before giving me his professional opinion.

“So, based on what I’m seeing – which I see all the time, unfortunately – I’m guessing the toilets and faucets are cracked, exposed piping will need to be spliced and replaced, and we’ll see about damage to piping inside the walls.”

“Best case,” T.J. continued, “I’m guessing two, maybe three thousand in costs.”

“Okay, well, if there’s nothing more we can do now, just keep us posted tomorrow,” I asked.

“Will do, y’all have a good rest of your night,” T.J. offered as he stepped out of the house.

I chucked my backpack into Erin’s trunk and I sank into her brown leather seats. “I’m not going to wait for the final bill to file a claim,” I said, processing my thoughts aloud. “This is negligence, this is on Jim’s insurance,” I said firmly, digging out my phone to call him.

As we drove out of our new neighborhood, Jim answered immediately. He was anxious to hear the latest. I relayed T.J.’s opinion to him, and asked for his contractor’s insurance. “I need you to email me your policy tonight,” I directed him. “I want to get repairs started this week.”

“Yes, of course, I’ll work with you on this,” Jim assured me.

“Great, thanks Jim. I realize this isn’t the position you want to be in, either.”

Erin and I left work early the next afternoon. We wanted to be there as T.J. finished his inspection. Jim hadn’t yet sent me his insurance information, so I called him as we drove, “Jim, I really need your full policy. I have proof of coverage, but the full policy will tell me if we need to get an adjuster out to the property — can you email it to me, now, please?”

Typically, a contractor interacts with an insurance company directly. My gut told me something wasn’t right, however. I didn’t trust Jim to follow through.

“Listen, Nate, you know I want to work with you on this, right?” Jim started off in a smooth voice. “But after thinking about it, I just don’t see this as my fault. Really, you guys should have gone to the property to make sure everything was okay.”

He was starting to slip the ropes of responsibility. “Hold on Jim. You can’t have this both ways. You can’t tell me you’ll work with me, but then say this it’s actually my fault.”

“Well, what I’m saying is that I’ll guide you through this process, but I can’t file a claim. The blame doesn’t ultimately lie with me. My guys just don’t operate this way, and even if they did, you have to be responsible for your own property now. This is your home.”

A tidal wave of vitriol swelled within my chest. I knew exactly what Jim was up to.

Jim was avoiding increased insurance premiums and more out-of-pocket costs. The path to saving the skin on his own ass was convincing me, a first-time home-owner, that I’d missed part of my job description. You see, after sufficiently convincing me that I’d shirked my responsibility for my property, Jim could play the rescuer. He’d swoop in to negotiate costs with the plumber, and guide me through the rehab process.

I saw right through it. I was fuming, but I kept my response composed. 

“Jim, stop. Let me make this very clear. Responsibility falls squarely on you. If you try to wiggle out of this, I promise it will come back to bite you. Neither of us want to go to court, but if we do, there is no scenario in which I allow you to walk. Is that clear?”

I’m sure Jim felt the knife-edge in my voice. Erin, who prefers to avoid direct conflict at all costs, felt it. She stared at me, wide-eyed.

“Woah, Nate, I told you I’m going to work with you. That’s not going to be necessary.”

“I hope not Jim, because the responsibility lies with you.”

“Well, I don’t believe a court will see it that way,” Jim retorted, continuing to switch his approach from helpful-hero to Mr. Slick.

I laughed before shooting back, “Here’s the headline, Jim. ‘Negligent contractor takes advantage of unsuspecting homebuyer.’ How do you think that’s going to go? When I show pictures of smeared paint and build a pattern of recklessness, plus a flight itinerary that says I wasn’t in town to inspect the home, what’s the verdict going to be?”

“I think they’ll see things my way,” Jim dug his heels in.

“Let’s just see what the damage is, and we’ll take it from there,” I hung up the phone.

I feel I should insert a short disclaimer before you read on.

You should know, I’m not proud of what unfolds next. It’s not characteristic of who I’m becoming; it’s a shadow that’s cast as I change and develop in my journey.

There are certainly pure intentions mixed into my response to Jim — an overwhelming instinct to protect my wife, our home, and to shut down those who threaten us — but there are also intentions I regret (namely, ending up in the right without regard to collateral damage).

So, if this story is all you read from me, or if you stop reading before the end, know I don’t believe it to be defining of who I am on my best (or even average) days. It’s me at my worst, written to help you try to do right, not be right.

Okay, enough said. Read on!

Two days later, after T.J. sent me his invoice, Jim started screening my calls. I texted him what I thought to be good news. There was zero damage to our waterlines, P-traps, and faucets.

The bill for the inspection totaled a mere $525.00. T.J. said that in 20 years of plumbing, he’d never seen pipes freeze and leave zero damage. Our pipes and plumbing infrastructure were completely intact. As strong as ever, in fact. It was a literal miracle.

I expected Jim to respond to my message, elated that he’d been let off the hook. Instead, he didn’t reply. For weeks, Jim dodged my emails, calls, and texts. He ignored my repeated requests to pay T.J.’s invoice, which started to accumulate late fees.

After a month of no response from Jim, I decided to switch my approach. I was in Nevada for work, so I picked up my hotel phone and dialed his number. “Hello, this is Jim.”

I smiled, deviously. “Hello Jim, this is Nate. We need to talk about this plumbing invoice.”

Jim groaned, “Nate, that was your plumber. You called him, and in my opinion, that’s way too much money for an inspection. I’m not going to pay it.”

“I’d hoped we could avoid this Jim, but I don’t feel like we’re going to create any resolution between the two of us. Can we at least agree on that?” I offered.

“Yes, I agree, we’re very far apart on this,” Jim granted me.

“Okay then, I’ll be filing papers for a small claims suit tonight. You can expect to hear about a court date in the near future,” I informed him.

Feeling confident that I was in the right, I leaned into Jim. Hard. I wasn’t going to let him paint me as the inept homeowner. “By the way, when I file those papers, understand the total isn’t going to be $525. You’ll be paying damages for mental anguish, lost income, and it’s not going to end well for you. I promise you that.”

I was in control of the situation, and I knew it, so I began to manipulate Jim to do exactly as I wanted. Not because I needed the money, but because I had him by the balls.

I wanted Jim to admit that he was wrong, I was right, and there was nothing he could to do change it. This was no longer about rectifying contractor negligence. My words were feeding my need to be on top.

“Okay, okay, I don’t think we need to go there. How about I work off the total? I can come work on lighting, or other projects?” Jim offered.

“No, Jim. To be candid, I have no interest in letting you back into my home. I don’t trust you, so pay this invoice, or I’ll see you in court.” I said it just like the movies, “I’ll see you in court!” 

“Nate, I can’t keep talking about this, I have work to do,” Jim said as he hung up.

I cracked open my laptop. Expecting this, I’d already drawn up papers to file my claim with the county court. I pressed “send” on an email I’d drafted to really put the screws to Jim.

Here’s the thing. I’d had the Ace of Spades up my sleeve the whole time. With a little research, I’d discovered that Jim’s ex-wife was listed on the LLC’s state registration. So, I named her in the suit, demanding she show up to the hearing. Picture that for a moment. Can you imagine Jim defending himself, with his ex-wife forced to stand with him?

Did I think I was brilliant? You bet. And let’s be honest, I was conniving. But was there evil in my heart? Unfortunately.

I’d wholly suppressed the little voice telling me to do what was right – to forgive Jim, to treat him respectfully, and to show him grace – in favor of being right. I wanted to photocopy and frame the court’s decision declaring me victorious, and hang it over every toilet in our house.

I’d flushed “Do right, don’t be right,” right down my fully-intact drain. 

As I stepped into the security line at McCarran International Airport a few hours later, my phone rang. It was Jim. “Hello,” I answered.

“Nate, I really don’t think this needs to go to court. I’ll get you payment, but I need time. Jobs are really tight right now, so I don’t have the cash to pay today.”

“Jim, we’re talking about a few hundred bucks. This isn’t in the thousands,” I reminded him.

“I know, I know. But if we can just work out a payment schedule, I’ll pay it in full.”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll send you an MOU, which states you’re in the wrong, and you’ll make payment within two weeks. If you sign it, I’ll hold off on filing the suit.” I knew that if Jim signed an admission of guilt, it wouldn’t matter if he did or didn’t pay. I’d have a silver bullet that would allow me to proceed directly to filing a lien against him.

“Okay, send me the MOU. I’ll sign it.”

“By 5pm tonight. If I don’t see the MOU in my inbox, I’m going to court,” I hung up the phone and stepped back into the security line.”

Here’s the thing. I was all too content with my overly-litigious spirit. Actually, I was beyond content. I was thrilled. I’d outmaneuvered Jim and left him no cards to play, so he, of course, did sign the admission of guilt. As I walked through Denver International looking at the signed document on my phone, it felt like a personal scoreboard. That, in turn, made Jim my opponent.

Jim was no longer someone to love, he was someone to beat. An obstacle standing in the way of me standing in the right. However, I’d been in the wrong all along. While I believed playing my trump card meant I’d won, really, I just revealed my hand.

I’d shown my true colors. Had I told you I was a compassionate person, but the only interaction you’d observed was that of me and Jim, you wouldn’t have believed me. My behavior would say it all. Sanctimonious, smug, and coarse. Far from graceful.

One of my favorite authors, Bob Goff, says that, “Burning down others’ opinions doesn’t make us right. It makes us arsonists.”

Bob’s right. Jim proved I fit the profile of arsonist. If I’d been holding a big enough match, I would have burnt his business to the ground. I genuinely enjoyed the fact that I’d found leverage and emerged victorious. In the same way, arsonists enjoy watching flames lick over the homes, vehicles, and forests they set ablaze. It’s why they do it – there’s pleasure in it.

Timeout. This all sounds really ugly, doesn’t it?  

Well, Erin thought so. Once she learned of how I’d twisted Jim into submission, she questioned whether I was approaching things in a manner I’d regret. Confronted by her calling me out, I put lipstick on the pig. I layered on pretext like, “If he’d do this to us, who’s next?” and, “I’m just protecting the other homeowners he’s going to screw over.”

Ironically, this was around the time I was editing a chapter in my book Living Forward, Looking Backward, which tells the story of how I screwed up in a major way, and was shown grace I didn’t deserve. I wrote about how the man who showed me compassion modeled Jesus Christ’s example for how to love well, and give grace lavishly.

Erin pointed out I’d forgotten what I learned (let alone what Jesus commanded). It’s one of the many reasons we go together; Erin smothers the matches that only stand to do me and others harm. She was right, too. While I may have been legally correct — Jim was responsible for the damages — I wanted to be right, not do right, and that made me wrong.

I’m sometimes tempted to feel that the Bible’s stories about Jesus are irrelevant to modern living. I mean, if Jesus had been party to a modern contractor’s dispute, He’d surely tell Jim to pay up, right? And yes, Jesus talked a lot about loving people, saying thing like, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” but does that really apply to forgiving debts?

Well, it turns out that Jesus did talk about this exact scenario. He told the story of a man who owed a bunch of money (about $7.04 billion in today’s dollars), and had his entire debt canceled. But, immediately thereafter, that same man turned around and demanded payment from another man who owed him a few bucks (obviously, things don’t end well for that guy).

Jesus’ story hits a little too close to “home” (if you catch my drift). There I was, no better than the man who owed billions, demanding that my lunch money be repaid, while also presuming that I’ll be shown grace for all of my missteps and mistakes.

So yes, the dispute did end with me paying the plumbing invoice and not filing suit. I wish I could say I’d planned that from the start, but that would be a lie. It was Erin’s gentle reminder that showed me how I’d ultimately been wrong all along. That I was right, but I wasn’t doing right, and I’d forgotten the lessons that Jesus taught. Thank heavens for Erin.

It may be that you’ve never bought a home. Or, you have bought one, but you’ve never found yourself entangled in a contractor dispute. Nonetheless, might there be a “Jim” in your life?

Is there someone you could call, text, or email to say that you were wrong, even if you were “right?” Maybe your Jim is a spouse or a close friend — did you try to gain the upper-hand in a wrong way?

If so, take it from me. No relationship, not even hired help, is worth burning for the sake of being right. It’s far better to do right.

Want to read more?

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