When she taught me to drive, my mother cautioned me not to insist on principle. Even if I had the right-of-way, I needed to yield if the other guy barreled into the intersection. Better to survive then etch “But I was right” on my tombstone.
Fair enough. I’ve also taken, though, to chanting a little mantra to myself when I’m tempted to leave my coffee mug on the counter, or folded laundry on the couch, or a forgotten plastic bag on the sidewalk in front of me: Do the Right Thing. Not the Expedient thing, or the Procrastinating thing, or the It-doesn’t-really-matter or Someone-else-will-do-it thing.
Sometimes, I need to retrace my steps to Do the Right Thing, because the mantra seeps slowly through the thatch of my brain. Other times the mantra trickles to the gutter, my brain like asphalt shingles, the right thing not done.
How do I reconcile those bits of advice? How do I do the right thing and, at the same time, not insist that I’m right? Perhaps the answer lies in my motivation.
At the intersection, I might demand the right-of-way simply because, as a matter of driving law, I can. I might angrily choose to confront the other guy — even alarm the other guy — until he sees me, acknowledges my pre-eminence, and stops. I make him yield to me because I am right and he is wrong.
Of course, as my mother reminded me, that binary carries peril: he could fail to see me, or fail to heed me, or simply fight me right back because he has the more advantageous (albeit unlawful) position. I may be right, but the cemetery stone bears my name.
My attitude toward the mug, the laundry and the litter is similar. Standing on principle, I might insist on a fair distribution of effort or natural consequences or keeping my hands clean: That’s not actually my mug. Or, I folded, you put away. Or the people who live there will nab the trash and, besides, the storm drain is down the street.
And then I think of my Mom, the intersection, and the granite-and-dirt cost of satisfaction. Who pays when I judge, convict and execute the penalty against someone abridging my idea of right? Sometimes them: feel bad, worm! Sometimes me: that tinge of righteousness and self-justification sours in my mouth.
How, then, can I do the right thing without leaving a tombstone behind? Perhaps this: Quiet the parts of me that defend by attacking, that feel better when the other feels worse, that plow into the intersection because, damn it, you are wrong and I’m about to prove it to you.
Quiet those parts, I say. And then act from the best parts of me — the parts that are calm and curious and humble and kind. Step away from the mirror where I see my own legitimate grievance and look instead at the other person. They may still be looking into their own mirror, at their own grievances, insisting on their own principles, believing because of their own story that they are absolutely right to push through that stop sign and into your right-of-way. I might not be able to draw their eyes to me, but I can draw my eyes to them and perhaps see them with compassion.
And for me, at that moment, my galvanizing righteousness — usually a sound but grievance-fueled principle — falls away. There’s no right, there’s no wrong; there’s just the possibility of connection.
Doing the right thing, for me, is both the thing itself and the reason why I do it. If I yield in a conversation out of resentment or timidity, silence may be the right choice — but I haven’t Done the Right Thing. If I fight back to honor myself, but also to punish with condescension or anger, I haven’t done the right thing then either.
And too many times I do one of those two things.
Now, though, I’m going to try to probe what fuels my choice, what impulse of self-defense or attack grabs the steering wheel when my calmer self is trying to hit the brakes. Then I will try to push those impulses aside and choose a way illuminated by generosity, kindness and self-control.
It’s the right thing to do.
I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community site. Follow this link to see other short essays about “Right.”
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