I had just read about a terrible act of terrorism. There are so many of them that sharing which one will seem almost comical to anyone who reads this post a year from now; they all sound so alike that they blend together.
This one involved children. And this year, I became a mother. And these days, when I hear stories about atrocities committed against children, it hits me in a completely new way. I ache for those parents, and for the loss of so much human potential that was loved and nurtured. I think of how, when my daughter is not at home, the house feels empty when her roars of delight or demands to be picked up isn’t the background hum of our life.
Even a second of thinking that I would never hear those sounds again or feel her warm little body against mine or kiss those little fingers and toes that are always in motion?–unimaginable.
* * *
And, then there’s life. I was in a conflict with someone. I was ruminating on things they’d said, things I’d said. Months were passing with no real resolution. I went about my day. I’d hear about some new, more recent thing that they’d said about me, and then feel the anger surging up, again. I’d feel distant and disconnected from myself whenever I thought of the situation.
Things kept amplifying. If I spoke respectfully, it didn’t get better. If I fought back and tried to explain myself, it didn’t get better. If I completely distanced myself to give time and space, it didn’t get better. Tit for tat. You did this, so I’ll do this–oh, you did that? Well, then I’ll do that plus this!
But then, another frustrating conversation or little anecdote would filter over to me, and again, I’d feel frustrated.
It was a surprise to me on a random day of the week when I suddenly thought of, and then began crying for, those children. It was like a dam bursting forth; one moment, I had read about these children hours earlier and simply filed it away in my mind the way we do with most of the endless stream of bad news that we see in any given day, and in another moment, I was aching.
I thought of those parents grieving all the way across the world, and wished that I could hug them tight and close. I wished that there were anything I could do to stop this kind of war and madness.
I felt apologetic, more than anything. I kept thinking, “I’m sorry; I’m sorry; I’m sorry.”
This is the guilt that often accompanies privilege: to know that you have it so good when others don’t, that it’s as if you’re getting away with something. In that moment, I felt sorry for having it so good and not being able to do anything to undo someone else’s pain.
But I knew that this grief was not where I wanted to live. It’s tempting for all of us to believe that if someone else would be different (bosses, friends, family), if those outer circumstances (money, time) would be different–why, if only those terrorists would be different, then we’d all be happy! I know that this belief system is a fallacy.
It’s this fallacy that the people or the stuff “out there” needs to change before we can change, that keeps anything from ever changing.
So I asked myself, “Where am I at war, in my life?”
And swiftly, I got my answer.
The Buddhists say that all war starts within. It’s because we abuse ourselves that we will abuse others; it’s because we’ll go to war within our immediate families that we will go to war with other countries; it’s because we starve ourselves (of love, if not literally of food) that we will tolerate the starvation of our neighbors who can’t afford food.
This is why I don’t think that personal growth work is selfish. We cannot give what we do not have, and anything you do to grow who you are on an individual level can only ever benefit the collective whole. The more you grow, the more it becomes imperative to your growth to raise others up, to bring them with you.
For all of my attempts to listen and speak respectfully, to practice compassion, I was at war–the war of wanting someone else’s behavior to change. If only they’d see my perspective, I thought, they’d realize that I was trying to communicate with love, and that I didn’t want this madness between us.
That’s just arrogance. The way to stop the war? Short of enacting necessary boundaries for my physical and mental well-being, I could just let them live the way they wanted to live. Not in a dismissive or condescending way, but rather dropping all desires to get them to make different choices.
That meant, somewhat painfully, letting them say what they wanted to say (to me, about me), letting them be as close or as distant as they chose.
Ending the war is really about releasing control. If I find it to be madness that two religions would fight each other because “you don’t believe what I believe,” then it is just as much madness to be locked in conflict with someone else in our luxurious, first-world circumstances, for the same underlying reason.
Sometimes, there is a pop-bonus-surprise! with these stories, where a day or a week later, for reasons no one can discern, the other person in the story who was kicking up so much trouble magically decides to chill the fuck out and then the conflict resolves itself. Then the narrator of the story gets to wrap it all up in a neat little bow.
This isn’t one of those stories, at least not in that way. What happened for me when I realized that I didn’t want to be at war, anymore, was that I found an immediate kind of peace.
“They get to live, how they want to live.” My new mantra. My new rallying cry of freedom.
Also, in a world where the political system increasingly feels less representative of public will, where calling my representatives and asking them to do something is going to be about as effective as putting a sticker on my butt, ending the war within and trying to create communities of people who are willing to practice respect and tolerance becomes the one thing we can do. It’s how to change the world .
There will always be grief in knowing that my little, individual self cannot stop the suffering I hear about on the news. But I’m willing to do what I’m able to do.
I’m willing to start with my own little heart, and hope that a movement springs from there.
It was a busy day, and I had a doctor’s appointment. I was taking the elevator to get to the ground floor of the parking garage, listening to messages on my phone as I walked. A man and woman were standing there, chatting, and we all got onto the elevator, together.
There was a sudden, strange silence as we went down the elevator and upon exiting to head into the hospital, I heard the man behind me, grumbling to the woman about people with their cell phones who couldn’t put them down for even two seconds, and she chimed in in agreement and disapproval.
I felt a curious giggle wanting to arise, since the timing of my cell phone use and their commentary seemed more than coincidental.* I smiled as I walked through the sliding doors of the hospital, thinking: Wow. What an interesting narrative for someone to spin, when they just don’t know.
While sure, I hadn’t been chatty with these strangers on an elevator, the facts were these: That my cell phone is on silent, 99.9% of the time. That my entire schedule pivots around our infant daughter, and I work half as much so that I can spend more time with her. That I’m not on my phone even when pushing my daughter in a stroller, because I want to be fully with her, even though she’s too young to know the difference and wouldn’t be able to see me on a phone when she’s face forward in her stroller, anyway. That I shop and cook for my family more nights of the week than not. That when I drive, I don’t text. That I have no games on my phone. That I don’t even have email on my iPhone, save a junk account. That people routinely get annoyed with me because of how bad I can be about returning texts, emails, or phone calls.
In other words–while I certainly use my phone, I’m pretty conscious about how I desire to use it.
Someone saw fifteen seconds of my life, and an entire narrative cropped up about who I must be, because of it.
How interesting, I thought. And then: Where in my life do I do that, too?
This is why Buddhism and so many other spiritual traditions ask you to abandon all “knowing.” When we think we “know” we become limited. We see one slice, we cling to it, we use it to reinforce our belief systems and identity systems without ever questioning whether it might be reflective of an objective truth. Even the concept of objective truth is one that we are cautioned about (Who determines this so-called “objective truth”?).
Instead of grasping on to some idea or concept and making it ours, we’re asked to release concepts–just as you would release the breath on a meditation cushion, not holding on to it because to do so keeps you from breathing, which in turn keeps you from…living.
I play with this, on the regular. I just don’t know. I don’t need to know. I don’t need to cling to the illusion of knowing. I don’t need to have the answer. I don’t need to figure it out.
When we don’t need to “know,” what I find when I’m successful with this practice is that all that’s left is something open and spacious. It’s a different quality of openness or spaciousness ever time, so it’s difficult to describe–more felt than articulated.
And often, too? When I can release the need to know, it’s a relief. I have spent an exhausting amount of time trying “to know,” trying to quantify and categorize and compartmentalize because I wanted some semblance of control (and I wanted control because that’s what would make me feel safe).
The truth that I keep coming back to is that we just never really know, in an absolute sense. It’s always shifting and changing. And “safety” is an illusion. We are actually all walking around in the world, raw and exposed and vulnerable regardless of whether or not we realize it. Tsunamis and volcanoes and earthquakes, real or figurative, teach us this lesson again and again.
So in the absence of knowing, I like to ask myself: Where does happiness take up residence in my body? Do I give it enough room, enough space?
When I’m not hyper-focused on “knowing” in any absolute way, the answer that arises on its own is this: I am here to be happy, to be joyful, and these states are not things “to be done,” they are not something I can “accomplish,” but rather if I make the room for those states then they will come forth because they are there all of the time.
We just don’t know. We don’t even need to know.
*Or not. Who knows?
Releasing the need to be right feels, to me, like being in a sweat lodge. Have you ever done that? You first enter the lodge and immediately think, “Oh helllllllll no. No way. I can’t do this.”
But you take a breath and decide that you’re going to give it a go (mostly because someone has sold you on the idea that this has a spiritual element to it, and while you’re dubious, you’re also hopeful).
And five minutes later, as more hot rocks and steam are added, you’re again convinced that it is impossible, not to be born. But if you can stay, you do stay.
You stay until you absolutely must leave, or until the ceremony is complete–whichever works for you.
No matter how long or short of a time you were in there, bearing down under the heat, it is always true that as soon as you step out into the cool, clean air and take a breath, you are grateful, for everything. Relief washes over you.
This is what it’s like to release the need to be right.
You can want to be right (mostly because you’re looking at the “idiot” in front of you and man, are they so crazy wrong–don’t they realize how wrong they are?).
The thought occurs to you, “I want to practice not needing to be right.”
Something in you fights for it. It feels so good to be right! This person is so wrong! Don’t they realize? Maybe if I just explained it one more time…gave another example to bolster my argument…
You hold back. Bear down. “I want to practice not needing to be right.” Mostly, you do this because…well, because someone has sold you on the idea that this practice has a spiritual element to it (and again, you are dubious, but you’re also hopeful).
The person you’re speaking with says yet another idiotic thing. They’re wrong. So very, very wrong. Maybe they’re even hurling insults. You want to defend.
You pause. Take a breath. Consider what kind of response would be the intersection of communicating your needs + doing so respectfully + not being attached to “being right.”
This takes some tricky mental logistics (even with practice). Often, it boils down to a statement that starts with “I notice,” and intonation, and a bit of vulnerability.
“I notice myself wanting to defend myself, right now,” you might say, because it’s true. Then you might let the stunned silence of that response hang in the air.
What You Win When You Stop Being Right
When two people need to be right, it’s an argument. Nothing productive happens in an argument.
When one person decides that she doesn’t need to be right, it’s impossible for the argument to continue.
You get sanity. Cessation of argument. Sometimes, even, the other person in the equation will follow your example, and this is the birthplace of solutions.
Also, you get the divine realization that actually, “being right” is not a win. Not really. Not ever, because when one person needs to be right, the other person needs to be wrong.
If you ask yourself, “Do I really feel good when I make other people ‘wrong’?” I hope the answer is a clear, resounding NO.
Being right is also not a “win” because the wronged person will probably carry the feelings of “wrongness” as a wound, and that wound will just express itself again, or elsewhere. In other words–making someone wrong doesn’t shut down the problem or conflict, it just applies a temporary silence and drives the issue underground. The person who was made wrong either carries a quiet resentment, or their anger will rear up somewhere else in the relationship, or in another relationship, or be projected onto another issue.
So if you’re really a light-bringer, if you’re really someone who wants to walk the talk of compassion, if you want to change the world…you’ve got to stop making people wrong.
(This is not, by the way, an exhortation to dim your light or silence your voice. It is possible to state that something is unjust without tearing down others. Critique and insult are two different things.)
How Do I Start?
To stop making people wrong, you’ve got to stop needing to be right. You’ve got to see it for the hollow win that it is, how empty it feels in your body the very moment that it happens.
It’s also helpful to understand what identity system is propping up “I need to be right.” When one’s identity requires “being right” in order to be comfortable, the person is going to seek out ever-more situations where they need to be right, the one who knows, the one who has the final say, the one who has all of the control.
Change starts with this: “I want to practice not needing to be right.”
Carry this like your mantra. Expect to falter, to give in and need to be right. Breathe. Bear down. Come back to it: “I want to practice not needing to be right.”
The simple desire to drop the path of war will feel difficult at first, but when you have your first encounter with truly and honestly knowing in your body that you don’t have any attachment to being right, it’ll feel like that cool relief, that fresh air.
Thank god, you’ll think. Thank god I found this place! Why in the world did I ever think that I needed to be right, so badly? This feels ten times more amazing!
You’ll be grateful, for everything.
You’ll also be human, and falter again, but that one brush with the divine wisdom of not needing to be right will be enough to show you that there is an alternative.