The Wisdom of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache

Nov 15, 2019

“There are four things that lead to wisdom. You ready for them?” She nodded, wondering when the police work would begin.

“They are four sentences we learn to say, and mean.” Gamache held up his hand as a fist and raised a finger with each point. “I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. I was wrong.” —Still Life by Louise Penny

I write mysteries, and I read them. Lots of them. One of my favorite authors is Louise Penny, whose central character is Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete de Quebec, the provincial police force of  Quebec.

Gamache is in his mid-50s, happily married to Reine Marie. They have two children and a grandchild. The head of homicide, Gamache abhors violence, places principle over politics, and has iron-clad ethics that get him into serious trouble with his often less than ethical superiors. He is also, as you can tell from the above quote, very wise.

On a recent vacation, buried in another of Penny’s books, I got to thinking about how the four things that led Gamache to be a wise leader apply just as much to his being a wise husband. And how, in my many years as a police psychologist, these four things are often sadly missing in the personal lives of police officers everywhere. I offer them here in the belief that every police family can benefit from being a little more “Gamache.”

1. “I don’t know.” Knowledge is power. It’s what keeps cops safe. On the street, not knowing the answer can have serious consequences. At home, always having the answer, being pathologically certain of your own point of view, can be damaging.

Self-inflation, thinking you know more than everyone else, is an occupational hazard in law enforcement. Cops see more trauma and tragedy in the first few years of their careers than the rest of us civilians will see in a lifetime. That doesn’t mean they know more than the rest of us, because they are judging the entire world based on the 10 percent they see. This is a sampling error.

John’s wife asked him to step outside to meet their new neighbor. John opened the door, looked at the neighbor, and stepped back in the house, saying, “The guy’s a jerk; I don’t want anything to do with him.” On the street, reading folks quickly is a safety measure. Misapplied at home, this kind of pathological certainty quashes curiosity, makes others feel wrong or stupid, and stifles openness to new experiences.

2. “I need help.” Cops, male and female, are notoriously reluctant to ask for help. Especially when it comes to their mental health. Part of it is shame, and part of it is the stigma that permeates other male-dominated professions, like the military.

To need help is to be human, not weak. Resilience means struggling well with problems, not the absence of problems. Waiting too long to ask for help or coping poorly with stress, is a preventable, self-imposed injury.

If you are troubled for whatever reason, it’s important to get help. If you don’t, you are holding the family hostage to your problems. If you think your family doesn’t notice, you’re fooling yourself. They are reading you all the time. If you think you don’t bring the job home, think again.

3. “I’m sorry.” Too many times, I have seen a small offense between co-workers build into a year-long grudge for want of an apology. Most people don’t know how to make a genuine apology. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I’m checking into rehab, and by the way, you’re too sensitive” doesn’t cut it.

Dr. Ann Buscho outlines five steps to making an effective apology: a) Take responsibility for what you did to offend and articulate it in specific terms; b) understand and articulate how the offense affected the other person (or persons); c) state clearly the line that was crossed; d) clearly express remorse or sorrow for your actions; e) state what you will do to avoid re-offending; and f) when appropriate, offer restitution.

Avoid asking for forgiveness or for the person to accept your apology. These requests have to do with your discomfort, your needs. When apologizing, the focus is on the offended person, not the offender.

Should you always apologize? There are certainly times when we unintentionally offend someone. I love to make people laugh, but sometimes my humor backfires. My intentions are pure, but still, I have to take responsibility for the outcome. Especially if I value my relationship with the other person. “I didn’t mean it,” does not repair the damage.

4. “I was wrong.” Expecting to be right every time under every circumstance is impossible. It’s one of those unwritten and unenforceable rules that can drive you crazy. In Kingdom of the Blind, Gamache knows he is wrong when he allows a young officer, still in the academy, to go undercover to find a cache of lethal drugs that Gamache himself released to the public under dreadful circumstances. He knows he’s wrong, and he’s prepared to take the consequences.

Police work does not breed humility nor encourage conversations about moral injury, doing something that runs against your values. Admitting to wrong can have legal implications. Not the same at home. Strong families can admit to being wrong and take appropriate steps to repair the damage, including learning to tolerate disagreements and let go of a grudge. Relationships require on-the-job training. If you and your family need help, don’t wait. Check my resource page.


Subscribe to the Blog

Ellen addresses the world of writing and psychology. Don’t miss a single post.

Sign up for my newsletter: