The Wrongness of Being Right

December 11, 2013 | 27 comments
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My boys have been squabbling with each other. The 6 year old and the 13 year old seem to have endless, petty arguments, in which the 6 year old takes a stubborn hold on a factually incorrect proposition, and the 13 year old fails through vain repetition to convince him of the error of his ways. The bickering erodes away my patience with both children, but especially the older one. Yes, he’s right, but what does it matter? Wouldn’t it be better to just let it go, allow his little brother to continue in his error (until he forgets about the disagreement, which will happen almost as soon as the older one stops bringing it up), and be content with the internal knowledge that he was right? Apparently not, because whenever I suggest (or order, depending on how long and loud the conflict has been) that he drop it, he can’t resist trying to have the last word, or needling his brother one more time.

After a full summer of this, I had to ask myself the question: Is there any virtue in being right? In insisting that you are right?

It seems to me that any time you turn something into a point of conflict, you risk being in the wrong. Not that your cause turns evil or the proposition you support is suddenly fallacious; but that you have turned your own righteousness into a point of pride. It becomes more important to be right than it is to understand your fellow brother, to exercise compassion, to be humble and teachable.

I recently re-read Job. Job had lived righteously and still suffered. He was unrepentant because he knew he had done nothing of which he needed to repent. But his friends were sure that he must be sinful, and that he must need to repent; the evidence was clear. By insisting on his own righteousness, Job was saying in effect that he was right and they were wrong, and if their mutual understanding of God was accurate, then somehow God was wrong too.

So in the end, when God speaks to Job in His thoroughly overwhelming way, Job repents. God asked him outright, “Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?” Job withdraws his complaint. He close to the truth earlier when he asked “How should a man be just with God?” The answer is that he cannot. If the protestations of his former righteousness were accurate, then the only thing of which Job could repent is dogged insistence that he was righteous. As long as he clung to the idea that he was right, he was closed to the upbuilding that is in the thought that as before God, we are always in the wrong (Thank you, Kierkegaard).

So when Job insisted that he was right, even though he had been right, he became wrong. When my son uses his rightness as fuel for continuing a fight with his brother, he is wrong.

We ought to seek absolution, not vindication. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one into his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” What we need is to be redeemed, not justified.

What is important in our relationships with God and with each other is not being right; it is about understanding and being understood, compassion and vulnerability. The pride of thinking oneself to be right insulates us against the openness we need to love and learn and to become right through the grace of God.

27 Responses to The Wrongness of Being Right

  1. Peter V on December 11, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Rachel, this is a difficult truth to live but I agree with your insight here. If we have to be right our ego wins and I have spent a lot years trying to suppress my ego.

  2. Dave K on December 11, 2013 at 8:41 am

    Nuts! Now I have to return the CTR rings I bought as Christmas presents for the kids. But what to get them instead? Perhaps there is a sale on sackcloth somewhere.

  3. J. Ferguson on December 11, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I’m never wrong.
    I’m always right.
    In fact, I once thought I was wrong about something but then it turned out I was right.

    I’m the humblest man I know. I’ve never lost a humble contest.

  4. Rachel Whipple on December 11, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Dave, you can choose the right, you just can’t be right. I’m sure the kids will understand. ;)

  5. Mtnmarty on December 11, 2013 at 9:57 am

    They both seem to be exhibiting age appropriate behavior.

    It seems to me that it is a bit of a slippery slope to tell the the older son to just let it go. It is very close to condescension. If the fact were of some vital interest such as a safety issue then conceding the error would be a bad thing. It also limits his ability to develop his powers of persuasion and learning the lesson that the truth of a fact plays a small role in whether it is held to be true.

    He will doubtlessly encounter the younger son’s attitude throughout life.

    When you ask “why do you want your brother to not be in error” does he have a well reasoned and answer.

    Or you could ask if he wants his brother to change his mind based on the authority of the older brother even if he is unconvinced? Does the older brother really want a fawning toady for a younger brother?

    I think the fact that the younger son can get the older son’s attention contains a gold mine of opportunities for you.

    Many boys love to argue and fight and a too direct approach to intervening might lower their respect for you.

    Even goods respect moms who aren’t afraid to fight dirty.

  6. Dave K on December 11, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I was just giving you a hard time Rachel. I have a 13 year-old boy of my own. And I’m with you on the point that choosing right is quite different from being right. If you haven’t seen it, you may find this TED talk informative: http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_h_cohen_for_argument_s_sake.html. Apparently the “winner” of an argument is really the person who loses. So far my kids are not convinced.

  7. D. Michael Martindale on December 11, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Speak for yourself. I’m quite capable of being sure I’m right, yet remaining teachable. If you can demonstrate how my logic/evidence that convinces me I’m right is faulty, then I’ll reconsider. If not, I’m not going to stop standing up for what I believe is right just because someone else gets his/her feelings hurt.

    I don’t think being right about something makes me “righteous,” nor do I think someone else being wrong about something makes them somehow wicked. But if I’m right, I’m right.

    It’s not like two people remaining in disagreement is the end of the world.

  8. Mtnmarty on December 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

    D. Michael,

    What would you accept as evidence that you should stop standing up for what you believe is right just because it hurts someone else’s feelings?

  9. Sideshow on December 11, 2013 at 10:54 am

    To me, this is a lot of what D&C 121:41-42 is about.

  10. SilverRain on December 11, 2013 at 10:59 am

    And now you see why the slightly more conservatively-minded LDS don’t comment much in the Bloggernaccle general.

    There are only a few of us stupid/immature enough to keep trying. ;)

  11. Frank Pellett on December 11, 2013 at 11:56 am

    The hardest part of this is you don’t tend to see you’re in a futile argument over who is right while you’re in the argument. Sometimes it takes days after being put into moderation before you can even take a real step back and see how little it really mattered.

    Some don’t ever learn this, but remain tolerated enough for one or two “quirks” they may have on certain subjects. People eventually learn which subjects are just not to be approached with you, which is only to your detriment. If you thought arguing where no one was getting anywhere is frustrating, try arguing when no one wants to even address your position.

    I kind of like the comparison of Job to a blog post. It does really fit, in a wierd way.

  12. Cassidy Bate on December 11, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, Rachel. Sometimes you just need to step away and leave it be (unless personal safety is the topic being discussed.) As a personal experience of how continuing to argue doesn’t help, I offer the following:

    My stepsister got pregnant in high school. While still deciding what to do (marry him, place baby for adoption, etc.) the baby died 2 weeks before the due date and had to be delivered still-born. My mom and step dad argued to no end about the “state” of the baby’s spirit. My step dad wanted to believe that the baby was waiting for us in heaven, while my mom kept saying things like, “Church doctrine doesn’t say when the soul enters the body so that probably isn’t the case.”

    My mom failed to understand the beauty and comfort my step dad was trying to feel during this difficult and confusing time, and instead insisted on being “right.” The arguments got so bad that it was the driving force in their divorce just a few months later. Was being “right” worth destroying her marriage? It shouldn’t have been…

  13. Jax on December 11, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Hebrews 12:6).

    He IS always right… but doesn’t stop telling me to fix my mistakes. It isn’t good enough for Him to “understand” why I’m weak, He wants me to overcome it. An approach worthy of emulation??

    In some cases, yes! In others, probably not. Do I care if my friend/neighbor/child insists that the score to a game was different than it really was? Probably not and I wouldn’t think taking “the moral high ground” was needed. Are there also a whole bunch of scenarios where insisting that what you know is true IS true? Yeah.

    And sometimes I intervene in an argument where I shouldn’t, just because of a headache? Sure. Do I let others go on when they are so trivial to be mind-numbing? Yep, I do that too.

  14. Laura Mabey on December 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    “You may be right….”

  15. Steve Smith on December 11, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    “We ought to seek absolution, not vindication”

    Well said. We should seek truth. And to do that we should seek evidence to back up our beliefs and prepare ourselves to be wrong. In fact, we should always assume that we could very well be wrong.

  16. ji on December 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Amen! A person can be so entirely right, so insistently right, that he or she is actually wrong…

  17. Rachel Whipple on December 11, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    Mtnmarty-the older one often argues just for the sake of arguing and goad the little guy. Sometimes I suspect it is also to get on a my last nerve as well. It’s so predictable, shrill, and feels incessant. We’re trying to teach them to reason, redirect, persuade and so forth, but these are lessons they are slower in learning than my patience may be to teach on some given days. I remember wondering over the summer if we are so obnoxious to God as those squabbling boys were to me. I comforted myself by hoping that God is more patient than I am.

  18. jks on December 11, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    I grew up in a family with lots of people who are right, or almost always right. I’ve noticed that there are those who are 99.9% always right but mean and arrogant about it. There are those who are 99.9% always right and not mean or arrogant about it.

  19. Cameron N on December 11, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    Cassidy, wow I can’t imagine living that story. Thank you for sharing so we can learn from it.

  20. Laura on December 12, 2013 at 12:34 am

    Beautifully-written and thought-provoking as always, Rachel. And, I suspect you may be right! But, I have a mind that struggles to wrap itself around the more philosophical, and I’m having trouble understanding your conclusions about Job. What should he have repented of, if he felt truly that he had not sinned against God? Certainly there’s no merit in obnoxious insistence of one’s own rightness, but what about the quiet confidence of knowing you’ve lived rightly? Or am I misunderstanding?

  21. Steve Martin on December 12, 2013 at 1:29 am

    Pride.

    It is a killer…and we’re all susceptible top it.

    Great post!

    ____

    Here’s a terrific (very short – 9 min.) sermon on Job chapter 13:

    http://theoldadam.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/jobs-hope.mp3

    It’s a keeper.

    Thanks.

  22. Rachel Whipple on December 12, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Laura, Job is a puzzler. The entire time his friends are chastising, er, comforting, him, he is professing his faith and denying any wrongdoing. So why does he repent at the end when the Lord speaks to him (Job 42:6)?
    I like the idea of a quiet confidence. The character I always think of with that kind of solid integrity is Caleb Garth from Middlemarch.

  23. Marcus on December 12, 2013 at 8:54 am

    So maybe softness of heart is a way of being that can exist utterly independent of, yet coexist with, one’s own varied and multiple positions on the accuracy of particular ideas or concepts?

  24. Rachel Whipple on December 12, 2013 at 9:38 am

    That’s a nice way of putting it, Marcus. Thank you.

  25. Mtnmarty on December 12, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Rachel,

    Oh, I had it backward in thinking the older son was frustrated by the younger one, but its sounds more like its the older son is using the younger one the way a dog uses a squeaky toy and just as frustrating!

    Maybe that’s an angle. Just treat the 13 year old the way you would a dog. (But if I remember my 13 year old self at all, a hard to train breed of dog.)

    But seriously, do you think the primary motivation might be boredom on his part?

  26. annegb on December 12, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    It never goes well for me when I insist on being right; still, I persist. I think I need a lobotomy.

  27. Mtnmarty on December 12, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Annegb,

    You just care about people too much. If you weren’t so caring, you wouldn’t care if they didn’t admit you were right. I’m just way to arrogant to ever argue with anyone.

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