The cost of being right

Nearly three years ago, when I still worked at a large global design firm, a new employee was assigned to the desk next to me in the open-office system. She was an interior designer with “several years of experience,” had come from another well-known, large, local firm, was an inscrutable 60 years of age, pranced around in shimmery ponchos, and held her head cocked at an angle. I hadn’t made up my mind yet about whether I liked her or not; she seemed a bit strange. But she took to chatting with me with alacrity. One day she caught me by surprise by making an astute observation about one of the senior principals in the office, alluding to his not-so-fair behavior in a rather ambiguous and reserved way, leaving her quite inculpable of being judgmental. The comment promptly ignited a bristling righteousness in me, however. “Yes, that behavior is simply unacceptable. It makes me so angry. I am passionate about rightness … about justice!”  I announced with vehemence. “That’s a tough choice,” my new neighbor said slowly and deliberately, with a small smile. Seeing my flummoxed expression, she added, “That was exactly my expression when a saintly person once said that to me over 30 years ago.”

I was left mulling over my colleague’s comment for weeks, if not months (although some things about her became more apparent to me; clearly she was a product of the American sixties – a rebel with a cause later converted to a seeker…?). But what did she mean, that’s a tough choice? Is standing uncompromisingly for correctness, rightness, justice, a matter of choice? Doesn’t everyone naturally favor justice? Then some time later when the struggle with the comment had left my conscious mind, quite unexpectedly, I spotted a bumper sticker that read, “You can be right or you can be happy.” I’m sure this is a common aphorism, but I was seeing it for the first time, and instantly a deep insight hit home with a bang. My neighbor’s comment from a few months ago fell right into place, without the thoughtful analysis or ruminations that had previously taken me nowhere. I realized that doing right and living in integrity has nothing to do with fighting for rightness in all situations – which is an effort to control (via opposition) what one perceives as negative forces. And such control is nothing but a mirror image of the control that the alleged negative forces are exerting. By resisting control with control, negativity is empowered and escalated. In an effort to be right, we become wrong. And in this process, we also become unhappy and lose our peace. In being right, we sacrifice our peace and happiness!

Since my little epiphany I have begun to see many, many things differently. Growing up, I had identified strongly with just causes and high thinking. Now, living in Seattle’s liberal political climate and volunteering for many causes (anti-domestic violence, gay rights, the green movement…) has me frequently surrounded by many righteous and rightful voices. These wonderful, well-meaning people, many of whose underlying values I share, are so passionate about their cause and so intoxicated by their rightness, that they have no consciousness of how much their true happiness is compromised. And then I run into the backlash – those handful conservatives who feel pressure from being a minority (many of whose underlying values I also share), fuming at the crazy liberals, the growing government and the healthcare debate, equally bitter and unhappy in their rightness. Everybody is busy being right, and nobody is remotely happy. With anti-this and anti-that, we humans become so impassioned and vehement about what we are against that we are often unable to identify what we are for – a “for” that is not defined in terms of an opposition to something else. Even when we are vehemently anti-war, we actually energize war as a phenomenon and perpetuate it! As Wilhelm Stekel has said, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” 

So, why do we love to be right? Why must we adhere to our sense of correctness even at immense cost? Why are we so attached to justness; why are we incapable of accepting human fallibility and the grayness of right and wrong? I don’t have all the answers, but I would venture that our egos are afraid of annihilation if we accept “wrongness” as a human construct rather than an absolute truth. If we’re not able to judge others, then we cannot feel superior, better or bigger, and we may be forced to see our own nakedness and frailties. So we hold on to our superior positions for dear life, unconsciously fueling the very negativity we criticize, so that we can prove ourselves right, criticize some more, and further bolster our superiority. Ultimately, attachment to rightness stems from fear and is a sign of underlying insecurity.

As for me, my realization has radically transformed my worldview. Whenever I catch myself deciding that someone is being bad, wrong, unfair, irresponsible, lazy, oppressive, abusive, criminal … whatever it is, I observe my judgment, then take a deep breath and switch to examining the contexts in my own life in which I might, even remotely, harbor similar tendencies. It is an instantly humbling experience, for I guarantee that for every misstep of another you witness, you will find a minor shade of the same lurking somewhere within you, if you are brutally honest. So, every failure of someone else can be used as an opportunity to turn the gaze inward, not critically but compassionately, and thus, instantly find compassion for the other, however heinous his or her erroneous actions may be. And no, to be compassionate is not to condone or perpetuate injustice; I’ve been amazed to discover that accessing compassion and making inner changes in myself can actually be much more transformative in the world than fighting for a cause. And the instant I find compassion, I also find a place of peace,  joy and love.

In my romantic relationship, the standing rule is: JW is always right. My usual joke is that he can be right so that I can be happy; this pronouncement in terms of a trade never fails to make him laugh. And trust me, every time I have forgotten this simple rule, I have been overcome with unhappiness in my relationship. I have experienced how lonely it is to cling and hold on to one’s rightness; one is left hugging one’s position or opinion, rather than one’s partner! And every time I have turned around and let him be right, peace and joy have returned to me promptly. How? Because when I relinquish my rightness, JW automatically turns around and returns the favor, to join me in a common place of peace, joy and love (no one wants to be left hugging nothing but his rightness:-)). So yes, there is a choice – you can be right, or you can be happy. If only small families and big tribes, small associations and big countries alike would get this simple little secret!

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Khushi

    You know,one of the characters on desperate housewives (my closet favorite) said the same thing this week. Its true.

  2. Anonymous

    I think there is a long term aspect to this. How would you feel looking back at this in 5 years when the immediacy of happiness is not there

  3. Tana

    Hi Anonymous,
    If I understand your question right, you’re talking about thinking back on an issue in the future and possibly being unhappy about it? I guess I am finding that there’s no reason to look back … especially when I’ve truly relinquished control of an issue! Plus, I am not suggesting inaction – just a focus on the aspects in my own growth that an issue brings up … which automatically changes things in the external world. (“Change the way you see things and the things you see will change” could well be a lesson from Quantum Mechanics :-))
    Thanks so much for helping me clarify!

  4. Anonymous

    Sorry, I did not express myself. What I meant was that you may feel now that there is no need to look back, but in the future you may find that where you have reached is a result of the choices you made. Not one choice but many small choices that lead you from your rightness.You may find you may have sold out your soul for a need for love and tempporary happiness. This may not happen, I am having a overly pessimistic day I suppose. I liked the rest of your article, especially looking inward. But your last few lines got me. I like what you said about hugging nothing but rightness.

  5. A very good and thought provoking blog, Tana. It’s really deep and while I agree with the philosophy overall, I’m not sure if I am grown up enough to live it.
    But, I’ll tell you this…this blog couldn’t have come at a better time (for me personally), as these days, I find myself being overly unhappy because the world around me is not ‘right’. But your blog begs me to re-evaluate, you know “Change the way I see things so the things I see change”

    P.S. You write very well. Have u considered writing as a career?

  6. Tana

    Nikki, Thanks so much. Your feedback makes the writing worthwhile; I’m glad it has some meaning to you right now. And yes, I am considering writing as a career – the encouragement from all of you on Bloggermoms has helped me get there. So thank you all from the bottom of my heart!

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