I was watching an old clip of Lauryn Hill give a talk the other day. One phrase she used really hit home. She said she had realised it was more important to be righteous than right. She was only 25 in the clip. I wish I’d had that kind of wisdom when I was 25. But I guess Lauryn Hill at 25 had done a lot of living.
It took me till much later – my late 30s – when I visited a retreat center and was confronted with the question: Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? It really unseated me. Because I had spent my whole life believing that being right was somehow righteous. But that day I started to unpick this preconception.
I started to see how my need to be right had stopped me being happy, how I had used it to create a fragile sense of superiority over others. Fragile because my world was liable to fall apart anytime anyone came along with a better argument than mine, and in fact I was terrified of this possibility. I also began to see that many of the things for which I assumed I had the right answer could be answered in other ways that were as equally valid.
Lauryn Hill’s observation seems very relevant for the polarised times we live in. Everyone is very sure they are right. But the way they go about asserting this only sows more discord. And all seem unhappy.
Let your kids be wrong sometimes
This need to be right can also negatively impact the way we parent. I am often guilty of telling my daughter that her behavior is ‘not correct’. Sometimes my judgement is accurate. But how beneficial is it to always tell her this? There are certainly things that she needs to know about her behavior, how it might negatively impact others and – ultimately – herself. These are basic survival skills for getting on in the world and not to teach them is a dereliction of my duty as a parent. But pointing these behaviors out all the time is dis-spiriting – who does well in life by being told that they are always wrong?
Sometimes the righteous thing might be to let the thing slide, to not correct, instruct, lecture. Because it’s important to keep in mind what a powerless position little children are in and how empowering it can be to sometimes just let them win, irrespective of questions of right and wrong. This might seem like a controversial idea to us. But then westerners are brought up inside a heavily moralising culture, a legacy of the Judeo-Christian framework that underpins our society whether or not we choose to follow either of these orthodoxies. It might not seem like such a controversial idea to a Buddhist, whose ultimate goal is to transcend ideas of right and wrong.
Here’s Lauryn Hill’s lecture.