I used to love being able to say ‘I told you so’. On the playground it was the equivalent of ruling by divine will. Affirmation was absolution. ‘I told you so’ made me right and it made me happy. In my self-centered universe the most important thing was my own opinion and perspective and every action revolved around the pursuit of proving myself in every way.
I didn’t like growing up. The unbearable weight of maturity came with the burden of realizing that the universe did not in fact revolve around only me. Suddenly I had to take into consideration other people’s ‘feelings’ and ‘perspectives’. I had to be ‘courteous’ and ‘considerate’. I had to stop talking to people with ‘air quotes’ because it was ‘condescending’. Now I live in a world where ‘I told you so’ is only said by children and smug know-it-alls. It’s taboo and uncouth. Suddenly, I was faced with a decision that separated two things I once thought were the same.
I could be happy…or I could be right.
When we learn to see beyond our own perspective we realize the ‘duality’ of things. Whereas before it was simply enough to be happy and right, now we have to consider that in order to be ‘happy’ someone must have to be ‘unhappy’ and to be ‘right’ someone must have to be ‘wrong’. As we learn to care for others and include other people in our lives, this realization complicates our relationships and often times presents obstacles and stumbling blocks.
Relationships are complicated and in the vast jungle of human interaction there are twists, dead-ends, and u-turns. It is no longer a straight one-way street as we learn to ‘see’ others along the way. It isn’t as satisfying to be as staunch in our stances but at the same time it’s so difficult to yield.
I get it, it isn’t fair that we have to choose to be happy or be right. If only we could have both. But the only way to do that is to give up on our relationships altogether. No one wants to be wrong, but no one wants to be unhappy either. Someone is going to have to be one or the other though.
Being wrong hurts because it makes us feel insecure and embarrassed. It is an attack on our pride and our egos. Worst of all, it puts us in a compromised state in front of someone whose opinion, most likely, matters to us. It’s such a twisted irony that the biggest struggles between being ‘happy’ and ‘right’ that cause the most friction and frustration are often with the people we care about the most. These issues are so much simpler and easier with people who mean nothing to us but when it is someone important we become much more likely to ‘defend’ ourselves.
Being unhappy isn’t much of an alternative. The source of our unhappiness is the knowledge that we are right paired with the frustration of trying to assert that knowledge on others. We take up causes we believe in (why would we waste our time on things we don’t, after all) and it is our cross to bear. We are the heralds of our truth and much like all the visionaries of past, we are unwanted or ignored, or worse yet, challenged.
I think to help us make this decision we need to reimagine these two concepts. ‘Happiness’ could be considered ‘reward’ and ‘rightness’ could be considered ‘struggle’. If the struggle is worth more than the reward, we stick to our guns and continue to pursue being ‘right’. But if the reward outweighs the struggle, we should yield at the cost of our conviction for the greater good.
Let’s take domestic bliss for example. You and your partner are living together and you cannot count anymore how many times you’ve had to remind your partner to replace the toilet paper roll. You consider it a sign of common courtesy and respect. They just don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Your otherwise happy union is constantly marred by this…(pardon the pun) dirty streak. You could continue this crusade. Bring it up over and over. You might seriously believe that this is some indicator of a larger lack of respect or awareness in your relationship. But if you are truly happy, isn’t a moment’s inconvenience a small price to pay? When our partners constantly come to us to complain about their day, should we point out all the things they clearly did wrong that we warned them not to do that we had the foresight to predict, or should we simply nod along and offer sympathy and understanding?
I read an article last month about a woman whose crusade to prove the IRS owed her money cost her ten years of her life living homeless on the streets of Washington DC where most people considered her insane. For more than a decade she hopped from homeless shelter to street with her only belongings being three suitcases full of documents and checks from the IRS that she refused to check because she was sure they were in the wrong amount and that she was owed more than they were giving. She could have cashed these checks and taken the amount that the IRS had issued her. She didn’t have to move to DC to prove her point. She didn’t have to chase after the IRS for ten years. But if she had cashed those checks, the ‘reward’, who would have ever believed that she was right? This story has a happy ending, by the way. After a social worker finally agreed to listen to her case and review her documents they realized she was telling the truth all along and the IRS issued her $99,999. According to her lawyer she may be owed even more.
I’ve been so used to chasing being right. I live in an environment that thrives on that. Being the older brother and being the oldest person in my group of friends I am used to taking a leadership position and taking for granted that I would be right without much opposition. The only time I’ve ever really encountered some resistance has been in my relationships. In hindsight I realize now that while it wouldn’t have ultimately saved any of them, I must have surrendered so many opportunities and possibilities for happiness because I stubbornly insisted on fighting.
When we rephrase these concepts as struggle and reward, it’s interesting how almost none of us would ever freely choose to struggle, when the reward is right there in our grasp. But our pride and our ego and our vanity sometimes get in the way. Sometimes it’s just that we have so little experience taking into consideration other people’s perspectives. We’re not bad people. We’ve just been dealing with bad definitions of happiness and rightness. We’ve been dealing with bad perceptions of how relationships work. No one wants to struggle. We have to choose this. When we do for the right reasons it lends nobility and courage to our actions. But when we let the struggle choose us, we invite chaos and hurt and suffering.
So the next time you and a person disagree, don’t think ‘do you want to be happy or do you want to be right’, think ‘is this struggle worth more or less than the reward?’