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.
It’ll be enough for you to find your way home, again.
The critics who site narcissism as the reason behind sweeping tides of apathy in the realms of politics and social justice are getting it wrong.
In most cases, people aren’t even apathetic. They care, deeply.
In fact, the truth is that we are afraid to confront how much we really care.
To acknowledge how much we really, truly deeply care would open up pain.
– The pain of watching as a black mother grieves because her unarmed teenage son was shot and then the system that purports to punish such crimes completely fails her.
– The pain of watching the world forget, after a couple hundred Nigerian girls are abducted while they are at school, not to be seen again, likely being raped and forced into marriage by their abductors.
– The pain of what it truly means to be poor and hungry.
– The pain of how bleak life is when you don’t have access to clean water.
– The pain of what we are doing to our own environment, building pipelines that are going to inevitably burst and wreak environmental havoc; sucking up water even in times of drought.
We close off our hearts because opening them feels like too much. And the most painful thing of all?
The pain of feeling powerless.
The truth is, as I sit here typing this in my comfortable two-story, multi-bathroomed home with my daughter sleeping peacefully in the next room and my husband working on his laptop while I work on my desktop and the two cars sitting outside of our home and the iPhones and iPads (plural)…
…the truth is that I cannot actively and directly do anything to single-handedly solve these problems. I cannot make Ferguson convict the white cop, who shot an unarmed black youth that was holding hands in the air. I cannot fly to Nigeria and single-handedly return those girls to their families who so desperately love and miss them. I can feed one person, but I cannot end world hunger. I cannot stop the Keystone XL pipeline. I cannot even make my neighbors stop watering their lawns or the local car dealerships stop washing all those unused cars on their lots, day after day.
Those truths are really, really fucking painful.
But I will do this: I will open my heart enough to care.
When I open my heart enough to care, then those mothers can never grieve alone.
On some level, I’m aware that that’s a pithy and meager contribution to the world’s problems. I could trot out other things that I do, donating money or time or resources, for the public’s general assessment of whether or not that’s “enough,” but the truth is that even to me, the things that I give or donate or offer never quite feel like “enough” when I know that people suffer, and I think that that’s just part of the deal.
On another level, I have a faith that open hearts and love are a more powerful force than we can tangibly recognize.
I have a faith that the day will come when the world will say its collective “NO” and that the power of our voices, together, will mean something.
And in the meantime, there’s this, my voice. This privileged, white voice that wants to use that privilege for something, for speaking up, and for giving a damn.
To the mothers who experience the suffering of watching your children being shot simply because of their skin color? Please know that someone cares. Someone gives a damn. And someone is willing to say, “That shouldn’t have fucking happened. Ever. It’s inexcusable. I support YOU, not the flawed institutions. Wherever I see a place for me to lend my power, my privilege, my voice to stopping this? It’s on. I’m with you. You’re not alone.”
I stand with Mother Nature, with people who are hungry, with those who are at the front lines of getting access to clean water to everyone. I stand with respect for the ground we walk on. I stand with love that transcends our fears about skin color and cultural difference.
I stand with all of those things because I have the courage to give a damn.
My greatest wish is that after reading this, you will, too.