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.
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.
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.
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?