No Right or Wrong

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Very little in life is clearly right or wrong.  I have found that the less I believe in such absolutes, the happier I am.  This is why.

Getting in the way of happiness.

For most of my first thirty years, I lived life in black and white.  There was right, and there was wrong.  To live the right way, one had to have things like rules, morals, and principles (“rules”).  And abide by them.  So over the years, I adopted more than a few; from the people around me, books, television, movies, anything.   Be kind to others, they said.  Work hard.  Be ambitious.  Be on time.  Don’t lie.  Be responsible.  Be humble.  Wake up early.  Obey posted signs.  Don’t litter.  And so on.

I strived to live by my rules.  I was proud of myself for having adopted them.  They influenced the choices I made every day.  And defined how I interacted with the world.  I assumed that living by good rules would translate into my living a “good life.”  And while I never stopped to consider  what a “good life” meant, I fully expected “happiness” to feature in it.  Yet, often enough, my rules got in the way of happiness.

Anti-happy.

They made me feel all sorts of anti-happy things:  confused, foolish, guilty, bad, and disappointed.  At the least.  There were times when my heart told me that a rule was inapplicable; yet my mind insisted that I follow it.  Was it littering if I threw an apple core into the wilderness on hike?  If I insisted on carrying the core back, I felt foolish.  If I didn’t, I felt guilty.  Notwithstanding my rule, I didn’t really know what the right answer was.  At other times, despite my best efforts, I failed at following my rules.  For instance, I wanted very much to be on time.  But there was a period in my life when I wasn’t good at estimating how long activities took:  wrapping up work, getting ready, driving, etc.  And although I was more often on time than I wasn’t, I felt bad when the latter occurred.  I felt bad about disappointing others.  I felt disappointed in myself.  Guilty.  And a little less worthy in my own eyes.  That wasn’t all.  There was another aspect to my anti-happiness.

My rules were measuring sticks not only for me; they were also lenses through which I judged the world.  I reacted negatively when others’ broke the unwritten rules I had picked out for them:  a subset of my own.  Basic things, I thought.  Be on time.  Don’t litter.  Obey posted signs.  And such.  So, when others were late, littered, disobeyed posted signs, or the other, I reacted.  I got upset or angry.  Offended.  I judged them.  I thought less of them.  And added to my anti-happiness.

For years, I struggled with these feelings.  To no avail.  Because as Einstein said, “[t]he . . . problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  And I made a breakthrough only when I was able to disassociate myself from my beliefs, and examine myself from the viewpoint of a curious independent observer.

Crutches.

I discovered that I had rules because I needed them.  For several reasons.  First, I didn’t trust myself to know what was right and wrong in many day-to-day situations.   My rules, which reflected my adopted notions of right and wrong, gave me clear direction.  And reassured me that I wouldn’t choose what was wrong.  So the less I trusted myself to discern the difference between what was right in a particular situation and what was wrong, the more rules I needed.

Second, I didn’t know who I was.  And my rules gave me an answer.  They told me that I was kind, humble, responsible, ambitious, and that I didn’t lie.  I worked hard, woke up early, and was usually on time.  I was also the kind of person who obeyed posted signs, and didn’t litter.  I, and others, approved of such behavior.  It was good to be and do things that were approved of.  It was good to know who I was.

Finally, I discovered, I was holding on to my rules out of fear.  If my rules defined me, who would I be when I let go of them?  Nothing?  My rules were the crutches I leaned on because I didn’t think I could stand up on my own.

Letting go.

Luckily, around the time that I was discovering these crutches, I was also trying to figure out who I was.  I wanted to know who I was independent of who I thought I should be, who others thought I should be, what I did for a living, how much money I made, my cultural and familial background, who my friends were, and so on.  And after much reading and contemplation, I was starting to see that underneath that noise, I was a complete, perfect, and able being.  I didn’t need external definitions.  And no matter what the world told me about right and wrong, I always knew in my heart what was right for me.

As a result, I started to let go of external notions of right and wrong, and of my rules.  What was right depended on the particular situation I was in.  I was free to decide what it was in the moment that an answer was required.  And the answer always came from within me, and it always made sense.  Nothing was black and white any longer.

A bonus that I didn’t expect was that the quality of my answers also changed.  Where previously, they had been influenced by rigidity and fear, now they held within them compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and love.  Both for myself, and for others.  They were somehow gentler.  And they left me feeling happier.

Full of Color.

Yet, I wondered about the sentiments my rules expressed.  They now seemed more like wonderful aspirations.  I had marred their beauty and diminished their usefulness by turning them into rules.  Because rules by definition are rigid.  And it was futile to try to apply rigidity to a beautiful and magnificent life that constantly changed and flowed.

And so, I gave up my belief in absolute rights and wrongs.  What was right for one person wasn’t always for another.  What was right at one time was not always at another.  What was right in one situation wasn’t always in another.  The answer was different each time.  And it was right there in my heart when I needed it.  So why would I want to limit myself to black and white, when the world was beautiful, vibrant, and full of color?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Pradeep April 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm

My quest for an answer to the question of ‘What is right and wrong’ led me to the following conclusions:
A lot of these ideas are at the core of Vedanta and especially the Katha Upanishad.

– You first have to learn that there are definite rules that drive this universe. So there is indeed an absolute right and wrong with regards to human behavior.

– To understand this absolute right and wrong, its first and foremost important to understand the purpose of life in unambiguous terms.

– To understand the purpose of life, we need to look at the journey of life in the universe starting with the big bang.

– From a pure mass of energy, to lots of matter to the first forms of life with no intelligence to the human form, life is moving in a direction which we call ‘evolution’.

– With each successive evolutionary step, the force of life or pure energy seems to have more and more of a significant presence in this universe. It sure seems like the original pure energy is ‘evolving’ towards its original state.

– At this point, I am happy to take a leap of faith and assume that evolution is the process through which life evolves towards its original state. As we proceed down the path of evolution, we continue to develop a better understanding of ourselves. All the faculties that life forms have developed help in developing this understanding of the self so that we can ultimately become this ‘pure self’.

– Life is therefore this massive unstoppable force that is moving towards its original state.

– Our body and mind as individuals are tools in the hands of life.

– We interact with the world through our thoughts(mind) and actions(body).

– Our thoughts and actions either propel us down the path of evolution or in the reverse direction.

– Happiness is the feedback that the mind receives when our actions and thoughts are propelling us in the direction of evolution.

– Sadness is the feedback the mind receives when we are going in the opposite direction.

– For most common purposes, you can therefore assume,
Right=Thoughts and actions that are in the evolutionary path and therefore make you happy.
Wrong=Thoughts and actions that are in the anti-evolutionary path and therefore make you sad.

– So how do you ‘proactively’ determine the right actions and thoughts instead of having to rely on the happiness/sadness feedback post-facto?
You do this by identifying yourself with the universal life form as opposed to the single fragmented individual that we think we are.
When you proceed with your thoughts and actions by identifying yourselves with the universal life form and with the goal of attaining the ‘joy of all life’, your thoughts and actions tend to be ‘right’. By the same token, when your thoughts and actions stem from the identification of yourself with the individual fragmented form, they tend to be ‘wrong’.

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Pradeep April 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Some other things you raised that I wanted to comment on:

1. Rules aren’t necessarily crutches. They should be seen as guardrails. If you don’t have them your life could go off track.
The key is to know what the right rules are apply them judiciously.
Life becomes fun if you look at it as a constant learning process around what’s right and wrong. Its like following the clues to solving a mystery.

2. Being humble, responsible, obeying posted signs, not littering are indeed the “right” things in that they are life affirming. It’d suck to live in a world full of arrogant people or have a world full of litter. These are just truths built into nature and just because they come in the way of relationships, you don’t want to brush them aside as ‘relative’ and so not worth believing in. The truth is what ultimately will save you. So you don’t want to abandon it. If you think its coming in the way of relationships, you need to figure out how to make the truth evident to the other person without damaging the relationship or even better use it to reinforce the relationship. Because ultimately, when the other person is doing the wrong thing they can’t be happy either. By getting them to do the right thing you make them happier.

Great example of this way of thinking is Gandhi who wanted the British to leave India not just because it was good for Indians but also because he thought its not good for the britishers’ souls and they would be a lot happier if they were not exercising cruelty over an entire population.

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