The Rightness of Being Wrong

January 19, 2015

I’m still thinking about the heart-wrenching violence in Paris two weeks ago, how dangerous and wrong it is to hate. I’m also still thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr., that this is the week we publicly honor him, and that he taught us through his unwavering insistence how right it is to care.

 

And the thousands upon thousands of people who courageously filled the streets of Paris sent the same message. Violence is profoundly wrong and the right, most wise response is to show up and demonstrate the absolute necessity to care. It is our most natural response to pain. We are, after all, wired for compassion and wisdom, and this makes me feel optimistic.

 

We have a choice, really. When we’re faced with pain and difficulty of any amount, whether internal or external, we can either turn away pulling our heads in like a turtle, or we can turn towards it, be willing to see it, feel it and do something about it. Certainly it takes some skill to sense the right time and place for stepping into the muck, but choosing action over inaction is ultimately what’s necessary, even when the wisest most effective action itself is inaction.

 

Here’s one of my favorite teachings from the Buddha.

By protecting myself, I protect others.

By protecting others, I protect myself.

Initially this may seem on the one hand fairly self-centered or on the other, completely altruistic. Yet it is not the kind of protection that puts an impenetrable and isolating wall around us, nor the kind of protection that sacrifices our own health or welfare. It’s the kind of protection and care that by its very nature includes and affects the whole.

 

I think of it much like defensive driving; that by honoring the rules of the road, very little harm is done and we’re mostly safe. But all it takes is one person to run a red light and the floodgates to injury fly open. With this teaching, the Buddha offers an accessible, logical and very sensible way of preventing, decreasing and responding to pain and violence of all kinds.

 

I’ve also been thinking about how all of this leads to our sense of rightness and wrongness. It feels great to be right. In fact there’s some research that shows that being right gives us a little endorphin rush. Try it now. Imagine a situation in which you knew you were right, especially with a situation that had some emotional charge. As you think about it, see if you can sense how that feels in your body. Are you sitting up straighter? Have any of your muscles contracted or do you feel an internal lift? You may feel it differently, but often when we’re right, we get some sense of firmness, strength or constriction, or even a little buzz.

 

Now try thinking of a time when you were wrong, also around a situation that had some emotional charge. Can you sense how being wrong feels in your body? Is there a sensation of slumping or deflation, or even of shame or vulnerability?

 

The wonderful, and of course, obvious thing about being right or wrong is recognizing which state gives us access to our deeper capacity to learn, to change and be changed. We don’t learn or grow very much when we’re hardened or constricted by our loyalty to our rightness. But when we’re wrong and more vulnerable, there’s a softening and even a surrendering. We are much more permeable. And from within this permeability we learn and grow.

 

As we are reminded this week of the necessity for tolerance and nonviolence, may we all learn to care for ourselves, each other and our communities just a little bit more.