Five years ago I wrote in my journal:
An interesting dilemma came up for me this morning. I woke up freezing and found out the furnace was not working. Doug found that the batteries in the furnace regulator were dead. He changed the batteries, but the furnace still didn’t start.
He insisted the new batteries (which I’d had in storage for some time) were not good, and that batteries never last more than a year or two. My experience had been different than what he said. I have saved batteries for at least four years and they still worked. The package expiration date was five years in the future – yet Doug didn’t want to try the others, convinced they were all bad. I didn’t like freezing and tried two more batteries from the same package myself. The furnace turned on!
Were we both right? Were two batteries in the package good, two bad? The house is warm and cozy instead of freezing cold right now because I was stubborn enough to insist on trying those other batteries. Was I wrong not to let him be “right”? Why is the issue of “being right” such a big thing?
I had another experience in that same time frame. My sister, giving me directions to her daughter’s home over the phone, told me that 90th South would go straight through from State Street to 20th East. I had been on 90th just days before and it didn’t go through.
She was absolutely sure it did and was dumbfounded that I would doubt her word. I had seen with my own eyes that it didn’t and was dumbfounded that she would doubt my first-hand recent experience – something I had seen with my own eyes!
When all was said and done we were both right – 90th didn’t go through, and the street she was thinking of did; she just got the name wrong. But we both had to take a hard look at our need to have our opinions accepted as reality when that reality differed with the other person’s reality.
We were both raised by a dad who was always “right” and, in our perspective, never considered our ideas and opinions. Did that give us both an inordinate need to have our opinions respected? We love each other dearly. Was the issue of whether 90th was a through street worth arguing about? Being “right” about something is an empty victory indeed if a relationship is strained because of it.
Changing the Perceptions of Others is Not My Stewardship
Perhaps the root of my problem is that being true to my own well-supported conclusions isn’t enough for me. I want the other person to believe my data and change their opinion – especially when it’s so obvious (to me) that I’m “right.” I’ve learned that it is not having differing opinions that strain relationships; it is when I have the expectation that the other person will “see the light” and get in line with my “superior” thinking if I just explain things well enough.
Why have I so often thought that sharing my experience, data, and perceptions would change someone else’s opinion when it rarely has?
By and large people only believe their own experience and data enough to change their opinion. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Peace comes only in letting go of the need to change others thinking, to straighten them out or fix them or make sure they know “the truth” as I see it. That is not my stewardship.
Nor is it my stewardship to try to change anyone else’s heart; only Christ changes hearts. It is appropriate to ask him to change my heart whenever I feel that natural man compulsion to not only be “right” but to convince others of that fact. It take a generosity of spirit to allow others their own perceptions and responses, to have the patience to let others be on their own journey, learn at their own speed – the very same generosity of experience exemplified by the Savior.
We Can Only See What We Can See
Can I honor each person’s right to see things differently without having to believe what simply isn’t true to me?
Doug gave me a good object lesson on that not many years after we were married. When I was trying very hard one day to get him to see things “my way,” he suggested I hold a typewritten page upright between us. “What do you see?” he asked. “I see a page full of printed words,” I replied.
“And from my perspective I see a blank page,” he replied. “Everything you see is colored by where you are coming from – your whole life experience. Everything I see is the same. Do you want me to lie and tell you I see what you see when I don’t?”
That logic made a deep impression on me and I’ve tried to remember it. Doug is much better at letting it be all right for me to see things differently than he does – and I love him for that. He doesn’t have the compulsion I sometimes have to get others to see things my way.
Letting Go of the Need to Be Right Doesn’t Mean Compromising Integrity
I can let go of needing to be “right” and still have the courage to say what I think and feel and need. The key is how I say it. If I say it with expectation or the slightest pressure for my listener to accept what I say as “right” above their own opinion, then my words will not be well received.
Speaking my truth need never include commands or demands. If I say what I think and feel with complete respect for separate realities and a willingness to listen to others and consider their points of view, my words won’t create automatic resistance or the need to defend. No one responds well to someone who has the tendency to sound desperate to be listened to and believed. What I really need is to be desperate to listen! I need to “seek first to understand” rather than to be understood. So much mutual respect is engendered by willingness to listen, so little by pleading our own case.
H. Wallace Goddard said, “Apparently our human obsession with being right often obscures His [the Savior’s] command [to the unforgiving debtor: “Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?” (Mathew 18: 33) He asks that we focus on being good; He does not command that we always be right. How many wars might be averted, how many lives spared, how many estrangements might be avoided, and how many misunderstandings renounced if we let goodness govern over rightness?” (“When Being Right Isn’t Good Enough“, Meridian Magazine 5/2/02)
Do We Really Know We Are Right?
Perhaps part of the goodness Brother Goddard refers to is the humility to recognize that there are very few things we can be sure we are right about. When my sons were babies I felt a little self-righteous about sweetening their food or drinks with honey instead of sugar.
I even thought mothers who did the opposite were a bit irresponsible. I thought I was right and “they” were wrong. Imagine how I felt later when it became common knowledge that honey can be dangerous for babies.
For years I felt self-righteous about brushing my teeth often with a hard bristle brush. I thought everybody would be better off if they followed my good example. Recently I read that too much brushing, especially with a hard bristle toothbrush, can damage teeth and gums. My dentist confirmed that I have actually damaged the enamel on my teeth by such over-zealous brushing.
Even if we are talking about gospel principles, where we “know” we are right, is it right to be self-righteous? Self-righteousness is a whole lot more about wanting to be right than it is about being righteous. If someone disagrees with me about some doctrinal issue, I often find out later that one of us was just using the wrong terminology – exactly like my sister thinking of the wrong name for the street – that we really agree on the basic “truth” after all.
Psychology teaches us to recognize the common human pattern to make a conclusion or judgment, then pay attention only to data that supports our conclusion (ignoring all data to the contrary, no matter how valid the opposing data might be: “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.”) The mind wants to be “right” about its conclusions.
Ironically, I did this for a long period of time, gathering data to support my conclusion (make me right) about being wrong about my relationship choices! What a relief to be able to let go of that mind-set and open my heart, instead to the Spirit’s tutoring.
My friend’s son is in a heart-wrenching situation with some parents who are certain they are right and that their daughter is wrong. They refuse to consider any data to the contrary. After a three-year courtship, he and his fiancee both feel they have received spiritual confirmation that it is right for them to marry. Her parents are certain that they as parents are right in wanting something “better” for their daughter. They refuse to participate in plans for the temple wedding or reception. They persecute, name call and harass both their daughter and her intended husband. The pain for all involved is unbelievable.
None of us know a tiny fraction of what is in the hearts and minds of others. God alone knows the truth of someone else’s experience. I wonder if we ever have the stewardship to judge the authenticity of someone else’s spiritual experiences – unless, of course, that person feels “led” to do evil?
Different Doesn’t Mean Wrong
Fortunately my husband and I agree on most of the basics; we agree on the direction we are heading and what really matters in life. We both feel strongly about our values and our belief in basic doctrines. However, because we come from such different backgrounds, we see the world and most things in it differently. And because we are very different personalities we think very differently in regard to how daily-life things should and shouldn’t be done.
Some of our differences are man/woman things: I multi-task, he focuses on one thing at a time. For the first few years of our marriage he consistently said, “Why don’t you just do one thing at a time!” – especially when I burned up a pan or let the utility sink overflow! But over the years, he realized I simply couldn’t do life that way. I’m wired to do several things at once – and never would have survived raising seven kids if I hadn’t been! The way I am is “right” for me.
On the other hand, I came to understand and accept his deep need to focus. He simply cannot think of more than one thing at a time without feeling very stressed. And the way he is, is “right for him. I’ve learned that we can think as differently as can be about mundane stuff and approach our tasks in two very different ways and still maintain good feelings between us if we totally respect each other’s right to be who we are, think what we think, do things the way we must do them. Respect is such an important part of goodness, and insisting our way is right is seldom respectful of others.
I Can Be So Wrong Being Right
I’ve often heard the question, “Would you rather be right, or be happy?” I doubt that I have ever been more wrong (or more miserable) than when I have been standing on my ivory tower of rightness, insisting that someone else was not seeing things clearly.
When I kneel at the Lord’s feet, does He want a recital of all the things I feel I am right about? Hardly. Think of his words to the Pharisee, who was doing that very thing. The Pharisees seemed blind to their own faults. Were they hiding behind the facade of their own “rightness”?
Author Scott Peck said:
Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one’s need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection (Scott Peck, People of the Lie, page 74).
Do I try to eradicate painful evidences of my imperfection by being “right”?
The Savior invites us to come unto Him – and when we do, He shows us our weakness, then lovingly tells us He gave us that weakness to make us humble. (Not much similarity between being humble and being “right,” is there?). And when we humble ourselves before him and have faith in Him, then He makes weak things become strong unto us (Ether 12:27).
There is great strength in humility. Teachableness so often requires an admission of being wrong. Repentance requires recognition of ways we’ve been wrong. We are not likely to “turn and live” if we don’t recognize that the way we are going is not right.
The more I ponder the subject, the more I can see how wrong an inordinate need to be right can be. How grateful I am that the Lord is kind enough to show me all the ways I’ve been wrong, and to light up life’s path with His meekness, humility, and goodness. “For the right way is to believe in Christ and deny him not” (2 Nephi 25:28).