Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right.
As a kid growing up, if I heard this phrase once I heard it a thousand times. I remember my mother saying it more often than perhaps I should admit and I always thought it sounded like a bunch a mumbo jumbo. A thought that confused me and seemed above my adolescent pay grade. And because I didn’t really get it, I chose to ignore the concept for the most part. I went about my business continuing to proclaim things as the need arose like “he hit me first” or “so and so did it too!” Like if you’re committing a juvenile crime in someone else’s company your errant ways don’t count. If someone else did it too how could I POSSIBLY be in trouble?! As kids we often act with impunity and believe that our behavior need only be as noble as the trouble makers around us.
But as an adult I have thought long and hard about this phrase…this truth. The sad reality is we don’t seem to outgrow our stupidity. The bigger we are, the bigger problems we seem to be able to cause. And we are never far from our need for retribution. If someone hurts or harms us, we almost view it as our duty as much as our instinct to fight back. The Wild West may be no more, but we’re still a bunch of gun slingers when it comes to our involuntary need for vengeance. I’m as guilty of this as the next guy but over time I have realized this reflexive revenge never, ever makes me feel any better. In fact, so very much the opposite. It inevitably makes me feel less. Less compassionate, less intelligent, less certain and less noble than I would like or fancy myself to be. And so I have grown to not just recite this philosophy, but to understand it in very real and poignant ways.
I was recently on the outskirts of a conflict and I watched in this sad and somewhat helpless way, the unnecessary harm that we have the ability to inflict on one another. Someone stated a position that while the words expressed disdain, it was obvious that the statement, the position, was the unwelcome offspring of deep hurt and sadness. But the admittedly understandable response was a verbal right hook. You hurt, offended, and insulted me, now getting back becomes some twisted game of wounding one-upsmanship. And before you know it we had mudslinging going on that would make a politician proud. When someone lashes out at us. Hurts our feelings, injures our pride or calls our character and intentions into question, it is only human to go about engineering our reprisal. We could make an impressive argument for the fact that we are just defending ourselves and in this light, firing the next shot seems downright courageous. But I have never found this volley of hurts to create any understanding and nobody ever ends up better off for the battle. Perhaps we dig in, wanting to shout our position believing that our rightness, our impressive correctness will be heard above the din of someone else’s lack of enlightened perspective. Um yeah. Good luck with that. So the question becomes, when a wrong has been done, how DO we make it right?
I read something in a book by John Gottman one time that I thought was a beautiful visual. It said that when we are fighting, the task before us is to pry open the others fist and see what is really inside. Very rarely is anger a “what you see is what you get” proposition. It is complex and deep seated and when something strikes a nerve and evokes our anger and bitterness, there is much going on that desperately wants to be understood. Now I am not suggesting that this Gandhi-like approach is easy. Personally I am wired to act more along the lines of “the best defense is a good offense” than to have my actions reflect the understanding that offense does not defend, it divides. To divulge even more of my instinct, I remember watching the Dr. Phil Show ages ago and he turned and asked a guy, “do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” And IMMEDIATELY what flashed through my indignant mind was “how could someone possibly be happy if they aren’t right!?!”
But across time, space and experience I have come to understand that happiness and more importantly Peace will never be a product of being right, it will only be the product of patience and compassion. The truth of our nature is that we are complex. Each of us arrives into relationships, conflicts and conversations with the history of who we are. It is simplest and undeniably true to say that there are ALWAYS two sides to every story. But the important part is that we are all, indeed, a Story. An intricately woven tapestry of our experience of the past and our hopes for how we want to be seen, respected and understood in the future.
To this end, I would encourage us all, myself as much as any, to never stray far from the Truth that two wrongs, never have and never will make a right. We want to leave a mark on the world and those we encounter, not battle scars from our cutting and cunning ways. The interesting reality is that what is right, never needs to be defended. The more saber rattling we have to do, the less likely it is that we’ve got it all figured out. I never have and am convinced I never will, discover a situation where the bridge between battle positions is not built upon compassion. I don’t have to agree with you, but if I throw my heart and my intentions into understanding you, everything changes. When we stop doing wrong and cease our need to be right, the magical thing we are left with is Wisdom. And wouldn’t we all consider it infinitely better to be remembered for the Wisdom we earned rather than the wounds we inflicted? Taking the High Road isn’t easy, but it’s the only path we will ever admire.