Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beyond Right and Wrong

We are so conditioned to think about issues in terms of right and wrong. This can lead to unnecessary anxiety. My daughter is always the last one to order in a restaurant. She is simply paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice. Instead of thinking that there might be several right choices, that is, choices that she would enjoy, she is convinced that there is one and only one choice that will make her meal a pleasant experience.

For some reason, we are uncomfortable with the possibility of multiple right answers. In an article in O Magazine, Martha Beck calls this being “on the horns of a dual-emma.” It makes our little synapses sizzle and short out. Our world becomes more fluid. We lose our sense of security. It can be terrifying.

I’ve seen this same mind set in the context of law. Because law is often thought of in adversarial terms due to the pervasiveness of litigation in our American society, we think in terms of winners and losers. At the end of litigation, there is technically a winner and a loser. However, when you think of the time and expense (and yes, those lawyer fees), it often seems that both parties have lost.

What is it about being right that is so compelling? Is it fear? Is it ego? Is it greed? How can we stop ourselves before we get locked into a way of thinking that permits only one right answer? That permits only one person to be right?

When I think back to some times when it seemed most imperative for me to be right, I can, with the benefit of hindsight, see fear. The fear was usually hidden behind anger and self-righteousness. My aggressive assertion of my rightness in those situations was a need to control what felt out of control. I mistakenly believed that what was out of control was “out there,” usually in the form of another person. But now I can see with compassion that what was out of control was me.

When I feel that urge now to engage in battle, I try to pause and look more deeply within. It makes me squirm. I feel so powerful when I am thundering with righteous indignation. I feel so vulnerable when I shine light on the scared places within.

I’ve learned from Thich Nhat Hanh to cradle my feelings, especially the feelings that make me uncomfortable. If I can sit with my discomfort, breathe into it (breathe at all for that matter!), I feel the discomfort soften. My body relaxes. My mind clears. I can see the gray areas. I can see the middle way, beyond right and wrong.


  1. So I haven't dropped by for a few days and, in mild panic at all I now need to catch up on, I come on by and once again you teach me a lesson.

    It is okay that I haven't read everything,,there is no right or wrong way to be a blogger buddy...so long as one is not rude! I can soak in what you say...even take time to 'empty my cup' of all my preconceived notions as I begin the journey into Step 2...Happy!

    Thank you, Galen, for being a hugely steadying force in my life!

  2. So helpful and positive - thank you Galen! That last paragraph particularly speaks to me.

  3. Hi Galen,

    Fantastic post once again. Here's my late night, past my bedtime thought...

    Without discomfort we would not know comfort. Without right and wrong our egos would get rather bored, I'm not saying that it's justifiable to be right, nor am I saying that it's horrid being wrong, sometimes in life it just is. When I reach the place of 'it just is', then I come to a new heightened sense of awareness, one which serves my serenity well.

    Have a fantastic Wednesday!

  4. I totally relate to your daughter being paralyzed by menu options. When I was vegan I had such limited options it was easy. When I switched back to vegetarian it was a back and forth battle of indecision. Now, it really helps me to remember that there can always be a next time. Multiple rights mean multiple opportunites. It's not something to be feared, but something to look forward to.

  5. Oh so much of what you said speaks to me right now. First, I really love this background...it's so comforting, I hope you keep it for awhile, it suggests a bright blue sky with a hint of spring flowers! Beautiful and peaceful at the same time. Back to your post, I totally agree with seeing gray, and with Alexia on the last part....but also just this week I opened up with my standing up for what I felt was right, a work thing....but isn't true there seems to be more than one side, depending how one looks at it? Being fair is an important factor, especially when dealing with people, or better yet customers...without them in many or most business you would have no business! great post this morning!

  6. Hi Galen,

    When it comes to the lawyers I feel it is all about money and winning. Doesn't matter who is right or wrong.

    As for the world. People see things differently in any given situation. This does not make anyone wrong or right. When I have to make a choice I pray about it and go with my gut feelings. This usually works for me.

    If it doesn't I put things in reverse and try it again. Life is to short to try to second guess yourself all the time. Thanks for reminding me of this. Nice article. You are appreciated.

  7. Hi Galen,

    I used to fear making the wrong choices and only wanted to make the right choices when I was younger. Of course that didn't work out. My fear only ended up sabotaging me. In the end, there are only choices. Right or wrong is merely a matter of perspective. When I look deeply at right and wrong, behind them stands a fear a failure, a fear of looking bad.

    Once I stopped worrying about failing or looking bad, being right or wrong doesn't really matter. What really matters is the long term consequences that arises in our struggle to be right. Sometimes a victory may be a Pyrrhic one. As the Yijing says about Conflict:

    "Here we have someone who has carried a conflict to the bitter end and has
    triumphed. He is granted a decoration, but his happiness does not last. He is
    attacked again and again, and the result is conflict without end."

    Thank you for sharing this article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  8. I think indecisiveness comes from us being punish for not being right all the time. This stems back to when we where children. When We spilled milk by accident. Mom and dad would punish us rather than hold our hands and make fun of a failure. Teaching us that life is about mistakes,and there is no problem if we make them. But that doesn't mean we have to stop living.

  9. JackSamMum--Glad you're back. I know from reading your blog that you have been very busy lately! I, too, have gotten behind on reading some of my favorites. It happens. I am honored and pleased that you consider me a positive influence in your life. I consider you an inspiration in mine!

    Alexia--Thank you for your comment. For some reason, that lesson about cradling my feelings has been a very powerful image for me when I'm struggling. Glad you like it, too.

    darlin--I appreciate your wisdom. Sometimes I remind myself, "It is as it is, and as it is is as it should be."

    HavynNyx--Multiple rights means multiple opportunities. I love that!

    Karen S--Glad you like the new look. I thought it was time to move from fall colors to spring blossoms. Interesting point you raise about your work situation. There are times when it is right to be right, so to speak. How do we recognize those times? You have given me something to think about. Thank you.

    Debbie--The Native Americans understood all about walking a mile in someone else's moccasins. It helps so much when we can try to see things from someone else's perspective. Prayer helps me, too!

    Irving--Thanks for your insight, as always. I was struck by the quote from the Yijing. That is so true. Our minister in the sermon last Sunday spoke about how we react to dictators (talking about Egypt). They are overthrown, but they return. What are we missing in our approach?

    johathanfigaro--I hadn't thought of that pattern being learned in childhood. I think that is a deep insight. Thank you.

  10. As a social behavior pattern... choice is a paralyzing prospect. Dan Ariel in his book Predictably Irrational talks about experiments with students at MIT who were asked to choose between 12 different products. Most couldn't choose. They mulled around and in the end walked away with nothing. When the choice was reduced to 3... the products flew off the shelf. It was an interesting experiment which goes to show that we all have problems with choice. It's human I guess. We don't want to get it wrong and be locked into that wrong decision. So we choose nothing and lose by default.

    Regarding being right or wrong... it takes great discipline to acquiesce when we are certain we are right. It's a noble gesture to turn the other cheek. To close our eyes and acknowledge the existence of another truth. But what of the obvious wrongs in the world... the wrongs that people like Ghandi fought peacefully for? There are times when we simply cannot [and should not] turn the other cheek. Justice is required in some circumstances to uphold morality and peace. And sometimes being right is the brave choice. Just another way of looking at it. Not right or wrong. Just different.

    Thanks Galen... a great post... well worth thinking about :-)

  11. Jean--You raise a very interesting question I have been mulling over myself. What is the connection between being right, in the sense you describe (when it's right to be right), and happiness? I would like to write more about this. Thanks for bringing this up. Deciding whether you want to be right or happy is sometimes a very complex question.

  12. Hi Galen,

    With regards to dictators and overthrowing them, there is another quote in the Yijing about Revolution. The Chinese always believed there was a need for the Mandate of Heaven when a new ruler came to power. They also believed that the ruler had to be free of selfish motives and influential. But looking at the state of politicians today, not many fit this ideal which is why unrest keeps going on and on. Here is the quote:

    "Political revolutions are extremely grave matters. They should be undertaken only under stress of direst necessity, when there is no other way out. Not everyone is called to this task, but only the man who has the confidence of the people, and even he only when the time is ripe. He must then proceed in the right way, so that he gladdens the people and, by enlightening them, prevents excesses. Furthermore, he must be quite free of selfish aims and must really relieve the need of the people. Only then does he have nothing to

    Gotta love the Yijing, it has advice for everything regarding human affairs. ;)

    Irving the Vizier

  13. I see what you mean with the sense of fear when feeling right! Its amazing that a bit of proper breathing can get one to calm down and relax. There are lots of rights in this world, its also important to accept that if I think I'm right, so does the other person.. Thanks for helping me identify this "thing" inside...

  14. How often I've felt what I call 'the righteousness of rightness'...only to realize with hindsight that maybe there was another way, after all...What a powerful image of cradling one's feelings and not feel the need to 'let them loose' on the world. Thank you Galen, you've made me think tonight!

  15. Irving--You have inspired me to get my Yijing out of a box in the attic and make it a part of my life again! Thank you!

    Bz--Yes, I have had to remind myself to breathe a lot recently!

    Corinne--I've also had to do a lot of cradling recently! Glad you found this image helpful.

  16. Galen, what an excellent post indeed. Very inspiring and thought provoking. I'm reminding myself to breathe right this second...

  17. About 11 years ago I started practicing Nonviolent Communications or Compassionate Communications (Dr. Marshall Rosenberg's work)and I had to come to terms with the right and wrong spectrum right away. It is impossible to truly connect with another person if your own emotions/ fears are in-between. The art that is hardest to practice is to separate oneself completely to see what is going on for the other and not let your "self" interfere with their need - not wanting to fix it just observe it.

    Excellent post and wow does this kind of work take a great deal of practice and reflection.

  18. Galen,

    When I look back at all the years I invested in being "right", I see so much pain and discomfort. You are so on target with this post. The need to be right stems so much from fear and the perceived need for control. That cozy introspection and middle ways are so inviting!


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