It isn’t an easy dilemma. But it’s worth thinking about.
Perhaps it’s summed up in the following poem:
there are two possible gifts
you can give your childen,
but you have to choose one.
The first is the ability
always to do the right thing,
regardless of how happy
it makes them.
The second is the ability
always to be happy,
regardless of how right
their actions are.
Which one would you give them?
Which one did your parents give you?
Which one do you want for yourself?
Do you want to be right, or happy?
THE RELEVANCE TO SELF-HELP AND COUNSELLING
It is a paradox that many people want nothing more than to be happy; and yet they also have a bank of rules which, in their view, need to be kept in order to be justified in their own eyes.
A very common experience in counselling is for clients to have a list of things that have to be corrected before they can be happy. Even outside counselling, many who want to develop themselves feel that their future happiness depends on achieving certain goals. Once they are achieved, they will be happy. If they are not achieved, happiness will elude them.
Person-centred counselling encourages us to look inside ourselves for our own happiness. Even then, we can end up haunted by our own failures to be authentic. ‘If only I could be my authentic self,’ we think. ‘THEN I could be happy.’ Sometimes, no sooner has a client unloaded themselves of the burden of parental expectation, than they reload themselves with their own personal expectation.
It seems that the hardest thing, sometimes, is to stop trying to be happy, and just be happy.
FEAR: A BASIS FOR CIVILISATION?
It’s not just you. Your social body has been built like that. If humans were not afraid of the social consequences of their actions, they would have less reason to cooperate and fit in.
In a sense, social fear, the fear of others’ disapproval, is the cornerstone of much modern civilisation. WIth this in place, we don’t break the law because we fear social opprobium; we don’t break customs because we fear being ostracised; and so on.
I don’t want to minimise the idea of being right. Actually, I would hope that, in an ideal world, we can find ways of being happy that seem wise and kind, and make allowance for others.
But, time after time, it seems to me that our desire to be right comes up against our wish to be happy; and it is often our happiness that suffers.
Think of the last time you had an argument and got angry. Didn’t you get this superficial sense of your own importance? Didn’t it distort things, so that, for a while, you couldn’t quite see the world in perspective?
In particular, it seems to me that, while being happy is a state you can start with, being right is a state you try to end with. So, if you imagine playing a game, you have a choice. You can make your happiness depend on winning (‘being right’) at the end. Or you can simply start by being happy.
No one would want their children, friends or colleagues to start misbehaving so much that they hurt others. In that way, I would completely understand someone who prioritised ‘rightness’.
But I think we have to be extremely careful before we start preaching to others about which bits of the universe we think are ‘right’, and which bits are ‘wrong’. That’s a big judgement, and I wonder whether many people, authorities and religions have checked their thoughts all the way through before pronouncing. It seems very common to borrow wholesale a set of scriptures, and then proclaim its rightness, even though it is different to someone else’s set of scriptures. War would seem likely if everyone does this.
Being happy needs no such assumption. It just needs acceptance. You don’t have to buy, borrow or steal anything from someone else to be happy in this way. You just have to learn to accept the suffering all around you.
I say ‘just’, but there are many hard aspects of this. In particular, seeing suffering, whether your own or others’, can be hard. It can take a lifetime of meditation, in whatever form, to feel at peace whatever surrounds you.
One thing I do know: if you are always wanting to correct your universe, then it will, by definition, never seem right, because you have started with the assumption that it is not what it should be.
Reflect for a while on the ‘rightnesses’ inherited from your parents. What rules did you inadvertently pick up from them about how you should be? What are the implicit rules you work from? You will know them because you experience fear when you contemplate breaking them.
Then reflect for a while on your own ‘rightnesses’. In what habitual ways do you protect your own ‘rightness’? You will know them because you experience fear and discomfort when you are separated from these habits.
Just for a day, can you lose these ‘rightnesses’, and just start by being happy? I know it involves dropping your job as Master of Improvement of the Universe. But maybe, just for one day, the universe will be all right.
What would you wish for a newborn child? That they did right in your eyes, however unhappy they became? Or that they were able to be happy, however successful they were?
Your evolved biology has some built-in social fear. This social fear makes you look over your shoulder and check the rightness of your actions in others’ eyes. But this kind of ‘being right’ can easily turn into an unkind, controlling attitude towards others.
Perhaps it is worth learning the happiness that is the simple acceptance of everything that is around you. To do this, you may want to drop your inherited rules, and your personal bossiness. Just for a day, maybe, resign all that, and accept things are OK.