This was one I really needed to hear. To accept that we could be wrong means we have to take off the blinders, to let go of our tunnel vision, and to begin to accept into our consciousness the perspectives of others. It also means we accept our failings instead of trying to justify them or cover them up. Says Susan Thesenga,”[We] need to avoid the traps of projection, self-justification, self-righteous exoneration, blaming of others, and making excuses for the self, or the traps of self-indulgence, denial, repression, and evasion [and] be willing to feel the pain of our real guilt for abandoning or rejecting others . . . “This is hard to do and initially feels like a blow to one’s self-esteem. And yet there is no pain that is more fully releasing and transforming . . . The pain of real guilt, true remorse, is also different from the pain of false guilt, which results from not living up to expectations. . . “ (The Undefended Self, 240,244).
And of course we are wrong! We are wrong all the time. We don’t have enough information to know everything. We don’t have the wisdom to interpret it all. Consider that every event in life is surrounded by a constellation of events reaching back in time and out in space, affected by people all over the place who are making individual decisions that impact it. We make our decisions based on what we can see, read, and maybe intuit right now. It’s always a guess and the “right” answer is always changing. Even something so simple as knowing the best route to take to work involves processing a knowledge of traffic patterns, current construction, holidays and conferences in town that could change patterns, our own moods, the condition of our car or the availability of public transport, weather, etc. etc. But so what? We do the best we can with what we know and so do others. Why should we get upset with them for having limited information and skill?
We are particularly wrong about our opinions, since not only are they based on necessarily limited information, but they are also shaped by our personal history and culture. Our individual moods, attitudes, and wounds all tend us to bias in one direction or another and can change from moment to moment. Our desire to be liked by people we admire, or to be different from people we don’t, cause us to become even more locked in to one position or another. Our level of development gives us a worldview that limits our ability to see beyond it. It’s no wonder we disagree; what is a wonder is that we agree at all.
Even the old aphorisms are dependent on context. For example, it seems to be a truism that the way to get what we want is through hard work. But that’s just a worldview. Some people would say the way to get what you want is to take it from somebody who has it (whether by stealing or by legislating a different tax structure). Someone else would say that if we are in flow, things will come to us. Other people might take issue with how we define “work” – maybe if we are doing what we love, it isn’t ‘hard.’ Some might say the whole problem is with the idea of “want” which implies scarcity and can be addressed at a more fundamental level. So many ways to view the same simple statement!
So, being “right” is in itself a subjective interpretation and one that is constantly shifting depending upon the state of my knowledge, the state of my development, the effect of my listeners (who may antagonize me or encourage me), my emotional experience, or what I saw on the news five minutes ago.
The past many years have given me multiple opportunities to recognize ways in which I have been wrong and how self-righteous I can become in the defense of my mistakes. Catching myself in my dogmatism is a daily practice. But I have to be careful not to beat myself up for it, too. Along with our willingness to admit our wrongs must come a willingness to forgive ourselves as well. When we can do that, it’s a lot easier to forgive others, too.
There are still those absolute truths common to the world’s great spiritual traditions – love, compassion, truth – but even these, of course, are subject to interpretation by the one expressing them.
Last night I sat down to think of what I really did think was true and I came up with two things: “love comes out of stillness” and “I exist.” Those resonated with me at such a deep level. But I couldn’t think of more at the time – do I really know so little? – and even those are an interpretation of the particular experience I was having. My comments on what I felt then to be true are still qualifiable, modifiable, and rewordable; I know they would be expressed differently on another day in another context.
These days, something is barely out of my mouth before I want to say, “Well, no, it’s not quite that.” Getting from experience, no matter how deep or shallow, to communication to another is not easy. Music and the great poets do it sometimes. Most of us mortals are lucky to get close once in a while.
So, instead of searching for “the truth” and then defending it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I might as well just accept that it’s rare for me to have it. That leaves me open to other people’s ideas and feelings, frees me from defensiveness, and gives me peace.
All the more reason to let go and trust.