We grapple with issues of right and wrong on a daily basis. Maybe even hourly! That so and so who cut you up at the traffic lights. That plumber who didn't turn up when he said he would. And that friend who hasn't called you for a while, even though they know you're at a low ebb at the moment. Even your cat can find himself very much in the wrong when he pees in your flower pots
This week's tip is about rightness and wrongness, how well they serve us, and yet how badly they serve us at the same time.
'Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.' Rumi
Once there was a salesman who was travelling along the road from one town to the next. It was a lovely day, so when lunchtime came he decided to stop his car and eat his lunch in the shade of a tree. He spread out a blanket on the grass, took off his suit jacket, folded it and laid it on the ground, and brought out the lunchbox that he had carefully prepared that morning. He sat down happily to rest and eat.
When he had finished eating he thought to himself, 'It wouldn't hurt to have a brief lie down while my lunch settles,' and that's what he did. He lay looking up at the branches of the tree, silhouetted prettily against the blue of the sky, and smiled as he saw some sparrows chattering among the leaves. After a few minutes his eyes closed and he dropped into a light sleep.
Splat! Suddenly he was awake as something wet dropped on his right cheek. He reached instinctively to wipe it away and was horrified to find a grey-white glutinous smear on the back of his hand. Bird poo. Ugh! He sat up rapidly only to find that his blanket, his trousers, and worst of all his Saville Row suit jacket were all covered in poo. Great splatters of it, like a Jackson Pollock canvas.
He leapt up, livid. He swore until the air was blue, he stamped his feet and shook his fist at the branches. The birds, frightened by the unexpected hullaballoo, fled.
A man in a green van stopped to see what was happening. 'What's the matter?' he asked the salesman.
'The birds have s*** on my things!' the salesman shouted. 'Look!'
The man in the blue van looked, then he looked back at the man, perplexed.
'But that's what birds do,' he said.
The reality of life is .... insensitive people make tactless remarks, clumsy people drop things, volatile people lose their temper, self-centred people focus only on themselves, philanderers philander, worriers worry, bullies bully, drinkers drink, nit-pickers nit-pick, dreamers dream, risk-takers take risks, unpunctual people are late. Also.... frightened people run, hurt people withdraw, angry people shout, sad people cry. And yes, birds poo.
We can rail against them, decide with the greatest confidence that they are wrong (and that we are right), but it won't make any difference. They will still do what they do.
So, given the pointlessness of railing against the wrongness of people's actions, why do we?
Well, to simplify a complex subject, there are three main reasons:
1. In order to explain why we feel so bad. If I'm hurting, the logic goes, the other person must have done something bad.
2. To regain some control, and so consolation. The other person may have acted badly and I may be hurt, but at least I know that I'm right and they are wrong.
3. To convince ourselves that we deserve better. To counter the painful thought that perhaps it is all our fault that someone has treated us badly, or that we don't deserve any better, we gather together every right-thinking person in the world to say it isn't our fault, it's theirs. It is not enough for our fragile sense of self worth that this is simply not right for us, it has to be not right for a whole load of people in order for us to believe it.
And the irony is that the more wrong we feel on the inside, the more we need to believe that the fault is on the outside.
But in reality the other person does not have to be wrong for us to feel bad, we can do that all on our own. And the hurt doesn't stop just because we've decided they are wrong. The other person does not have to be wrong for us to regain control either, or for us to deserve better. What is a much faster route to all these things is to be clear about whether a behaviour is wrong for us, and act accordingly.
For example, imagine a friend of yours is consistently late when you arrange to meet. You have asked them more than once to arrive earlier, and they do arrive punctually the next time, only to arrive late again the time after. You are clear that it is wrong to be late, everybody knows that, and you have been alternately upset and angry with this person, but it has got you nowhere. But what if the rights and wrongs don't matter? After all, there are cultures where being on time is quite rude. What if you simply asked yourself whether this person's behaviour is wrong for you, and if so, what you would like to do about it? You, not them.
When we let the rights and wrongs of a situation go, other people's behaviour suddenly loses its power - instead of it being the next big case for the court of human rights, it becomes purely a matter of information. Based on that information you can decide whether you would like better treatment than that person seems able to offer.
Even if the breaches of behaviour are much more serious than being late, focussing on wrongness only escalates conflict and misery, it never solves it.
The Iranian ambassador was interviewed on Radio 4 the other day. About Syria, he said, repeatedly
'There is no military solution.'
1. Think of a time when you have felt that someone has done you wrong. What happened exactly, and how did it make you feel? How did this situation make you feel about yourself?
2. What was the process of finding this person to be wrong? Notice how you changed the focus from yourself to them. What thoughts did you need to have to convince yourself they were wrong? What did you decide they shouldn't have done, and what should they have done instead?
3. Why was it important to decide this person was wrong? What would have been the alternative? Did finding the other person wrong make you feel better? If so, for how long?
4. Putting aside the rights and wrongs of the situation, what did this experience tell you about the way you do and do not want to be treated?
5. What information did you gather about the other person?
6. How might the answers to these questions help you to make choices in the future?
Have a conflict-free week.