Fonzie Syndrome

Arthur Fonzerelli defined cool.

When I was growing up, every guy wanted to be The Fonz. Who wouldn’t want to be able to snap their fingers and have girls appear on your arm – that’s girls with an “s.” He could bump a jukebox with his elbow and get it to play any song he wanted – for free. And he could turn a monosyllabic word into a veritable dictionary of expressions. Fonzie’s patented, “Aayyyy!!!” could express sadness, anger, joy, frustration, or any combination of emotions with just the inflection of his voice. But despite all of his “coolness,” The Fonz had a major character flaw. He couldn’t admit when he was wrong. He couldn’t say he was sorry. Saying your sorry means you did something wrong and The Fonz is never wrong. After all, being wrong isn’t cool. The Fonz was a national icon. So much so that the Smithsonian Institute asked to have Fonzie’s jacket for their collection as a symbol of our cultural heritage. But maybe that’s what’s wrong with us. We have adopted in our culture this idea that being wrong isn’t cool. That saying you are sorry is weak. We idolize characters like The Fonz because we admire their strength, but is it really strength when we refuse to admit our mistakes? Or does it take more courage and more character to do the right thing?

At the entrance of the American History Museum in Washington, D.C. where they display all of the cultural artifacts that represent America
At the entrance of the American History Museum in Washington, D.C. where they display all of the cultural artifacts that represent America

Ask yourself, what would God want for us to do?

We’re going back to the beginning to uncover a story that shows just how long this has been a problem for us. This story is literally as old as humanity or at least as old as 1800 years when it was first recorded.[1] We’re going to visit with Adam and Eve today and the very beginning of creation. Now some don’t believe that the story of Adam and Eve was literally true. Some believe it’s a folktale meant to help us understand God. But even if you don’t believe in this version of creation, even if you don’t believe in the story of Adam and Eve, the story itself says a lot about humanity and this penchant human beings have for not admitting to their mistakes.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Just a little fun fact: this fruit-bearing tree is found outside the entrance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland and is an homage to the old orange orchards that used to dot the land
Just a little fun fact: this fruit-bearing tree is found outside the entrance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland and is an homage to the old orange orchards that used to dot the land

So even Adam and Eve played the blame game.

The game where there are no winners. Only losers. And the reason there are no winners is because we can’t make things better when we don’t admit there’s anything wrong.  It’s why recovery programs always say the first step is admitting there is a problem. Until you recognize it for what it is, you can’t fix it because you’re denying its even there. Most of the time, we know there is a problem but we fail to own up to it because it would mean admitting we were wrong, that we made a mistake, and if we learned anything from The Fonz its that admitting your mistakes isn’t cool. So like Adam and Eve we live in denial. God gave them a chance to fess up more than once and they still didn’t do it. God knew where they were. When he asked, “Where are you?” it was a chance for them to admit they had done something wrong. He was hoping they would tell him of their own free will. And when he asked if they had eaten the one thing he told them not to eat, they disappointed him again. Adam blamed Eve and then Eve blamed the serpent. Neither of them said, “I’m sorry, God. I was wrong. I disobeyed you and did exactly what you said we weren’t supposed to do.” Instead, they passed the buck to the next guy. But maybe we should take the advice of President Harry Truman and remind ourselves that “the buck stops here.”[2] That ultimately we have to take responsibility for our actions. Whether we’ve been influenced or not, we are still human beings capable of knowing right from wrong and sometimes we make mistakes. We need to own up to them.

It’s not easy to do.

And in fact according to Scientific American, there are a lot of incentives NOT to admit our mistakes.[3] We want to avoid embarrassment. We don’t want to be punished. We don’t want to face the consequences of our actions. And sometimes those consequences are huge: broken homes, broken relationships, and losing your job just to name a few. But that’s not all. By NOT apologizing, we feel more in control, more powerful. We also retain our sense of self-worth, even if it’s based on a lie. There are lots of incentives to pass the buck. But just as there are benefits to deflect blame on others, there are huge benefits to fessing up when we do something wrong. People tend to be more merciful on someone who confesses their mistakes and offer them a clean slate. They are more likely to accept you back into their circle of trust and repair your broken relationships. You may even gain respect for being able to admit when you’re wrong. Others know how hard it is to be on that end as we’ve all been wrong before. But maybe the best benefit is being able to learn and grow from our mistakes.[4] When we don’t acknowledge them, even if we know we did them, we aren’t open to growth. We can’t get feedback from other people. And we close ourselves off to an opportunity to make ourselves better people. This choice, to own up to our mistakes or not, isn’t all that cut and dried.[5] The consequences either way can be disastrous. People who don’t admit their mistakes find that it all catches up to them if and when they are proven wrong. All of the consequences they were fearful of are multiplied by their refusal to admit their failure in advance. Any apology after the fact seems hollow.[6] But sometimes, hollow or not, an apology is needed.

Think about the people in your life who have caused you harm.

Think about those who have wronged you, those who made mistakes but cast the blame on you. Think about the times when people in your group or community made mistakes, but nobody accepted the responsibility. Think about leaders in government who do or say the wrong thing, who blatantly lie, who accuse the media of causing all the problems and then get caught and instead of admitting their failures, they lie even more. It happens everywhere and we know its wrong. And they don’t even apologize. The other day, I was driving on the highway and some guy cuts me off so I honk at him, letting him know I was there so he wouldn’t run into me. I was hoping he’d give a little wave. Instead he shows me another gesture with his hand, honks his horn, and starts yelling at me as he passes by. In every way shape and form, the guy was in the wrong, but he acted like I was at fault instead. Would it have hurt to give a little apology wave? Now in some situations an apology might not make it right. An apology might not make it better. An apology might even sound shallow at that point. But it’s a start. It’s a start toward healing and wholeness. It’s a start toward being able to let go and move forward. Let’s face it. It’s hard to get out of the bitter barn when someone is holding a wooden bar across the doors. And that’s what it feels like when people don’t admit their wrongdoing. We feel stuck. It’s harder to move forward.

We have to be sure then not to be the ones who do it.

None of us are perfect. All of us make mistakes. But let’s pledge not to compound our mistakes by failing to take responsibility for them. Let’s be open to the possibility we are not always right. When you get in an argument, take a step back, take a breath, and listen. And if you discover you are wrong, do the right thing and admit it. It’s not only good for you, but it will bring you closer to God. Because what happens when we are willing to admit we are wrong, it puts us in an attitude of humility. It opens our heart to the work of the Holy Spirit within us and we draw closer to being the kind of person God hopes we will be. We also begin to treat others in the way Jesus taught us – with respect and love. Going the opposite way puts up barriers between us and others and therefore between us and God. It hardens our hearts. And makes us less open to the life God wants for us.

It’s time to redefine cool.

Let us be the kind of people who think its cool to ask for forgiveness. Let us be the kind of people who think its cool to admit when we are wrong. And let us look at those willing to do so as being strong and brave rather than weak and spineless. Because let’s face it, it’s a lot harder to admit we’re wrong than to pretend we’re right. Just ask the Fonz. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.




[1] The estimated age of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible is somewhere between 70 CE and 150 CE.


[3] Information about the pros and cons of admitting mistakes come from this article

[4] Interestingly, Rick Warren wrote an article about the Biblical advantages to admitting your mistakes and they coincide almost directly with the research by Scientific American. Funny how science and the Bible don’t have to be at odds.

[5] Found this interesting article on the phrase “cut and dried.”

[6] Scientific American used the example of Paula Deen in their article (Op.Cit. above). When Deen apologized it was far after the fact and she tried to mitigate her wrongdoing. Her apology cost her greatly.

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