“In a controversy, the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”
From a very young age, we are taught to value being right. I think we have all experienced the painful, sinking feeling of being wrong and the empowering rush of being right. While there is no doubt that knowledge is powerful, there is no good reason for our self-worth to be contingent on the amount of knowledge that we possess. Still, I often wish that I knew everything even though I know that my love of being right affects my relationships and robs me of the joy of the learning from others.
I went to a Hebrew day school when I was very young and half the class spoke Hebrew at home. We would play a game every day that required translating Hebrew sentences from the Bible and the teacher would fully extend her arm to point at a student when it was his or her turn. She would keep her arm outstretched in my face for what felt like an eternity, repeating the line several times as though I hadn’t heard her…She would eventually give up on me. I literally never had an answer. I had no idea what she was saying and I let my team down every time. I had a lot of experiences like this before I began to excel in middle school. I was wrong so often and made to feel ashamed because of it. It was so painful that I learned to hate being wrong. I learned that it was wrong to be wrong. When really, it was human to be wrong.
So many of us live with this mistaken belief that “being right” about things will win us respect, admiration, love, power, happiness and so on. On a game show or a university exam, it makes a lot of sense to be concerned about the right answer but it seems that we want to be right whether or not it even matters. In fact, our attachment to being right often backfires when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
I can think of so many instances where I’ve witnessed two friends go at it over a topic, where one or both of them seems utterly determined to not only prove the other person wrong but actually make them feel stupid and ashamed. It is uncomfortable to watch and, in my experience, no one is impressed by either person. Yet I have become an aggressor in this way at times and, without realizing, I have allowed contempt, self-righteousness and condescension into my voice. This type of behavior brings the conversation and communication to a halt. At the end of the day, being right is often a cheap thrill and it may not feel good at all if you alienated yourself and others in the process.
This happens all the time in romantic relationships where each partner is more concerned with being right than with understanding their partner’s feelings and thoughts. In romantic relationships, we often fight about things that have no right or wrong answer yet we grasp so tightly to our perceptions causing greater distance between us, when its validation and closeness that we wanted in the first place.
Why are we so attached to being right when it doesn’t even get us what we want?
As Buddha’s message teaches us, when we get angry and more concerned with being right than finding truth it is because we have put our self-worth on the line. We think, if I am wrong, then there’s something wrong with me. If I am right, then I am powerful and worthy of attention. I am safe, secure and worthy of love when I am right. When we set the stakes for being wrong so high, it becomes very difficult to take risks and we can become very rigid in our thinking. We stop hearing other people and we lose interest in being challenged. We disregard information that could have helped us grow.
So what do I/we do? I have two ideas…
Get in touch with your intentions. I try to think of Buddha’s message and I get in touch with my objectives in a given situation. Am I striving to be right or seek truth and perhaps learn a new idea? Am I trying to win/gain power or to connect with another individual?
Recognize that being right or wrong happens in a larger context. This occurred to me the other day as I was sharing my knowledge of research in a conversation. I felt that surge of desire to be right and I found it funny because I wasn’t even arguing on behalf of my own ideas. So I’m trying on a whole new way of thinking about being right that is based on the notion that we cannot claim our ideas, beliefs and even the process of being right (or wrong). In order to have this experience of being right, others must be willing to hear and acknowledge your thoughts, emotions and ideas. Being right involves the individuals who validated your suggestion and also the people who gave you the knowledge and skills to develop them. Conversely, if you are wrong, you have been partly responsible for making someone else right by choosing not to be hardened around your ideas and hearing and affirming something or someone else. When I think of it this way, it starts to feel like we’re all just bouncing around ideas that don’t fully belong to anyone. I feel less personal attachment to my ideas because they seem like they emerge from a process and a collective experience. I start to feel a responsibility to share the stage and to hear opposing ideas.
Can you think of instances where you have been so attached to being right that you completely lost sight of what you were trying to learn or accomplish in a situation? What were you going to get out of being right? Why did being right seem so important? Share your thoughts and experiences and how you approach these situations!