I am not certain whether it’s my personality or a result of a traditional Catholic background, but I frequently find myself making resolutions. I respond to all the typical opportunities to start over—New Year’s Day, Advent, Lent—and also create some of my own. The Easter season, springtime, is usually one of the latter. Many of my new beginnings involve an attitude or behavior I want to let die so that something more positive can come alive in me. It’s no wonder, then, that this death-to-resurrection season, both in the church and in nature, leads me to reflect again on my own history of dyings and risings.
In doing so recently, it struck me how some attitudes were much easier to maintain without guilt when I was younger—being self-righteous, for example. I loved a good argument in my youthful days and delighted in proving to my “opponent” that I was right. I had no difficulty criticizing anyone else’s behavior, since I considered my own as, ordinarily, beyond reproach. I had occasional lapses into greater self-awareness, but could usually rationalize my way back into righteousness before long.
I don’t know exactly when I began to realize that needing to be right can sometimes have negative consequences. My mother tried to teach me that truth when I was a teenager arguing with my sister one day about whose turn it was to do some household chore. After several heated interchanges, my sister finally shouted at me, “Okay, you win,” then burst into tears and ran out of the room. I can still see the look in my mother’s eyes when she asked me, “Was that worth it, just to be right?” My satisfaction at winning changed rapidly to a combination of guilt and remorse.
In the years since, I have had many opportunities to learn that the effects of self-righteousness can be much more devastating than my sister’s tears. It is surely that tendency at its most extreme that led to the Holocaust, as well as to myriad religious wars from the Crusades to the current crises in the Middle East. Were it not for the fanatic need to convince others that being right is more important than life itself, suicide bombings would be a thing of the past.
Nearer to home, many relationships are broken every day because of one partner’s need to prove that his or her view of some issue is the “right” one.
Several years ago I met with a couple for marital therapy who cared more about establishing the validity of their opposing views on a number of topics than they did about rescuing their marriage from disaster. When I suggested that their tendency to continue defending their positions was not helpful, the woman told me she had no intention of being the kind of nonassertive wife who blindly accepts her husband’s opinions as her own. Her husband informed me that it would be unreasonable for him to consider seriously the views of his wife, who was not working outside the home and did not know much about important matters like finances or parenting. I felt, at the time, that I was in the middle of two warring armies determined to fight to the death for their right to be “right.”
I wish I had known then a truth that the years, and many mistakes, have taught me: One of the surest ways to overcome the need to be right is to want something else even more. An older sister in my religious community told me her idea of that “something else” we should need when I visited her a few years ago. I was explaining what had happened at a recent community meeting, telling her about a heated discussion over an issue of great importance to me at the time. I wanted her to be on “my side,” to agree that I was right, so I was speaking to her with a rather passionate intensity. She answered me with both kindness and wisdom: “Honey, being right isn’t what really matters; it’s caring that counts. Jesus told us to love one another; he didn’t say to outwit one another.”
Although I definitely agree with that wonderfully wise sister, it is not easy for me to live that truth. What has been most helpful through the years is learning that being right just is not enough. More is demanded of us if loving one another is what matters most. It is surely our motivation that makes the difference. When standing up for what is right is the most loving thing to do, there is no question that we are called to be there. Wanting to be right for the sake of our own ego or to win over someone else, though, does not fit the criteria for being loving. My teenage arguments with my sister, like the tenacious stance of the couple in marital counseling, were more about winning than caring.
I find hope and courage to continue learning as I witness the cycle of the seasons, knowing that spring will always follow winter, and that in Holy Week, every Good Friday will usher in another Easter. These yearly passages remind me that what matters most is not getting it “right” about being “right” once and for all. What is more important is staying in the struggle, failing and succeeding, falling and rising, dying and birthing, believing all the while that an indiscriminately gracious God is always with us, loving us as surely when we stumble as when we soar.