As I wrote about last week, we have an unfortunate need to be right in all our assessments of the world. Our inner mind is ruled by a great number of cognitive biases (here are just a few) that shape our opinions, actions and identity.
Let’s take the past 24 hours (yes, I’m going there). Each and every American had an opinion about who would be the best future president. How did they come to their conclusion?
They may have considered their reference group–the friends and family most close to them. Who would they vote for? They may have assessed themselves and asked “Well . . . I believe in these key democrat issues, so I’ll vote Hillary.” They may have had a bad experience with Obama Care and so voted for Trump. They may have actually abosorbed those mind numbing commercials extolling the virtues of candidate A and condemining candidate B. They may have carefully studied the issues and made a decision based on their values (also influenced heavily by there reference group). And on and on.
Whichever path they took, they were certain their choice was the absolute right one.
Although Trump won, the margins were very slim, almost 50/50. If half Americans believe one way and half another way, who gets to be right?
Fast forward ten years, its been awhile since Trump’s presidency. Historians look back on his term(s) and write well-researched books–some for and some against Trump’s performance and character. Do we then know what is right?
What is right anyway? Is it defined by how well Trump cuts taxes, secures our borders or many of the other promises he made? But how can we know if those, if realized, were the right choice? What if he builds the Great Wall of Mexico (which already exists, by the way) and in years to come it is said to hurt our economy or cause illegal drug trade to find new routes, leading to loss of life or additional burden on currently unburdened systems? Is that right? Is it wrong?
On Monday the pollsters said Hillary was projected to win. The margin was big enough to be significant. They were sure they were right.
Here’s my point:
There is no right.
When I figured this out, about ten years ago, it blew my mind. It was the stroke that split the diamond and changed my life forever.
I came up with a metaphor to describe the idea to friends at parties:
A hungry wolf must feed her cubs, as they are close to starvation. She sets out one dewey morning to hunt and spots a plump hare. She makes chase and catches the hair, kills it and feeds it to her cubs. The cubs are very happy with their mother and see her as virtuous.
A plump hare is hungry for clover so she leaves her warren to search for some. Out of nowhere, the wolf pounces upon her and kills her. Learning of this, the other hares see the wolf as a very wicked creature.
Which group is right? The cubs or the warren? Something has been killed, to be sure. But had the wolf valued the hair’s life, her cubs would have starved and died. Would she then have been in the wrong?
In positing this metaphor, my friends would conclude that right and wrong is reletive to the goals of the viewer. The warren was unhappy because their goals are to live and reproduce. The wolf was happy because his goal was to live and reproduce. The rightness was soely dependant on the point of view of the actor.
Don Miguel Ruiz has a term for this point of view. In his excellent book The Four Agreements, he names it as “he dream of the planet” in which “All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in.”
In the second book in his series, called The Fifth Agreement he likens the dream to a mall filled with movie theaters. You see your name on the marquee nearby and so you go in. You sit next to yourself and watch your movie. There are allies, heroes and villians and they all match up to how you view things. You exit the theater and go to your mother’s movie. She has many of the same characters in her movie only they are cast in different roles. Someone you see as a villain is her best friend, another you see as a saint is her nemesis, and so on. As you continue through each theater (your kid’s movies, your spouse’s movie, your friend’s movies) you see that you play many different roles in their life.
But which one of them is accurate?
I had grown up in Utah, where Mormon beliefs are ubiquitous. We were constantly told the church was the “right church,” a statement I saw as fact.
Then I visited New York City and observed the hasidic jews (which I had never seen before) and the catholic mass services and the melting pot in general and I was like Neo waking up to the uncomfortable fact that I might not know what the hell is going on.
Once I was able to admit to myself that my point of view was as unique as my tongue-print, I knew I had something of a special secret.
Let’s consider some of the implications of the absence of the belief in right and wrong:
1. We may choose any path in life without reference to any group or person who has motivation to control us unless we want to be controlled for the sake of survival and positive outcomes.
2. Rather than see it as a licence to become more selfish and immoral, we will increase our empathy a hundredfold. It will be acceptable for other’s views to differ from ours.
3. We will be better able to consider alternate possibilities which might not lean in our favor, and therefore mentally recover from these bad outcomes more quickly or plan for them and surpass them.
4. We will acknowledge the complexity of the universe, which leaves us open to new opinions.
5. We will be better able to come to grips with our place in the world by knowing that the acoutriments of fame, wealth and status are simply a dream and don’t matter to our self worth or even our happiness.
6. We will be able to act toward our own values and resist the sway of the popular.
7. We will not fear punishment by a cruel God for acting upon impulses of the jungle. We can recover from our mistakes, learn and move on.
8. We will be able to forgive others who impede our path. They are just acting upon impulses of the jungle and deserve mercy.
9. We can cease persuing what does not actually matter to us.
Could there be anything more freeing?
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