“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” ~ Rumi
It’s well known that when children are abused, emotionally or physically, often, if not usually, they believe it’s their fault. They did something wrong.
This was true for me. I took to heart the various abuses inflicted on me when young. It was if a sword was pushed deep into my heart. The deepest wound is to the human heart, a wound that perhaps can never fully heal.
It was not just that I believed I did something wrong, but more so, I believed that I was inherently wrong. There is a distinction here, an important one. We are not human doings, after all, but human beings, deeply sensitive ones, and when abuse and neglect find their way into our tender innocent hearts, we cannot help but think we are broken, we are flawed, we are wrong, intrinsically. For why else would someone condemn us for being our beautiful, wild, raw selves?
Compensating with right
Compensation is a cornerstone in all traditions of psychology. Hurt causes us to protect and adapt such that we hurt no longer. The intensity of pain and loss, the belief in being wrong, engendered in me an equally intense opposite reaction—I had to become right in the eyes of those who harmed me. I had to put up the right defenses and win their love back in the right ways. Right became my savior, my safety, my means of coping, my compensation. Thus, in absolute desperation, the innate self-preservation adaptive psychology in me took over, ensuring that I would do and be whatever it took to protect my hurt and find love.
Love, and the pain from lack of love, are the most core driving forces in the Cosmos. When the covenant of love is broken with those who are our primary caregivers, we do everything we can to ensure the pain of loss subsides and love is re-gathered into our brokenness. And when our trauma, our separation from love, including the separation from loving caregivers, is rooted in believing ourselves to be wrong by nature, the disease of being right is formed.
Deepening the wound
Further entrenching this illness in my nervous system and neurological wiring was my very Swiss upbringing that insisted there was a clear right and wrong way. The vacuuming needed to be meticulous (often I would be followed and inspected); my name had to printed just so, with perfect spacing; bedtimes were strict and early, and girls had to be “courted” in specific ways at specific times. Few corners were cut; tight controls were in place.
In hindsight, I appreciate this now. Although it made my need to be right stronger, in later life my attention to detail would prove to be very useful. Forgiveness often happens in hindsight, when we finally see the purposefulness of our suffering. Another story to be told, another time.
But while young, there were consequences to this precision. At 13 years old I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD was a means of control, a way of coping with the anxiety building in my nervous system. It is the perfect expression of the disease of being right with its acute attention to fine details, its impulses for things to be just so, its rigidity in thought and action. Books were perfectly stacked, tiny obtrusive bits of linen were removed from blankets, things were quadruple checked. The uncontrollable impulse to run my fingers along edges of such things as tables and doors haunted me.
My attention was drawn to what I could control—the outer circumstances of my life—because I learned very early that I had to take control since no one would be there for me, and because trust was broken. That need for control got out of control and ran my life to the point of me being incredibly hard on myself, and others. I demanded perfection and built an identity around achieving worth through unhealthy standards in work and sports. Forgiving myself for mistakes was challenging. Nothing could ever be enough so long as I felt I was not enough and believed I was inherently wrong. This inner belief and trauma would send me chasing love in “all the wrong places”, through mischief and madness, pushing myself and others; through my many means of being and doing right, that which I could control.
Wounds educating wounds
Inflaming the disease and need for perfection even more was school. Most of us know that school with its historic culture of standardized testing, grading, ranking, shaming, comparison, competition, as well as its expectation that wriggly kids stay seated for long hours, causes trauma. With advocacy and research, and the general waking up of concerned parents and teachers, we are realizing the impact schooling has on children. I have written extensively about this, but will make my point here with two short examples of how children are being infected with the disease of being right in classrooms.
In grade seven art class the schoolteacher placed a large painting at the front of the room. The assignment was for each student to paint the painting as best as possible. My friend’s son was one of those students. He was given a grade of 2 out of 10. Yes, he was graded… on art… in grade seven! When he came home and showed his painting and grade to his parents he lowered his shoulders and said, “I guess I didn’t do it right.” From that day forward he purposefully failed all his art projects and eventually failed the class. Another example of compensation, of reacting the opposite direction. He hated his teacher, he said, and he hated art.
And we wonder why kids are so angry and rebellious.
While speaking to a concerned kindergarten teacher, she informed me how she is expected by the institution to force her students to learn “scissor skills”. A straight line is drawn on a blank piece of paper, and these impressionable five year olds are expected to cut along this line while the teacher assesses and reports their competency. “I have one student,” she said, “that is overwhelmed with anxiety whenever he has to do this.” I replied by asking, “Why don’t you just give him a blank sheet of paper and let him cut wherever he wants?” Of course, this is not possible. It’s much easier to measure straight lines just as it is easier to measure standardized curriculum than play. It is much easier to assess and report pathways of learning that have clear right and wrong answers.
It’s much easier to control a child and her due process when learning is linear and standardized than when it is play-based, wild and free. Perhaps the need to control children is associated with the need to control our environment, to ensure it is just so such that we feel safe and secure; just as I tried to control my environment through my own obsessions with just so. Perhaps our demands for children to learn through linear curriculum come from an impulse similar to the one I had when running my fingers across the straight edges of shelves. Perhaps our obsessive need for children to be right is due to our ingrained personal belief in being wrong.
Over time, compounded with the sedentary nature of schooling, it should be no surprise that kids become anxious, lose their learner confidence, and become afflicted with the disease of being right. They learn right is the way, and wrong is to be avoided at all costs, lest they be ridiculed, shamed by pressuring parents and taunting students, made to feel stupid or fail. It is much easier, then, to simply do what is deemed correct by the teacher than think for himself or herself; to feed the teacher the expected answers to questions they have no interest in, and hopefully get that prized possession of a high grade. It becomes about the outcome—the grade, the university acceptance. Yet, undermined is their willingness to wonder, imagine and question, to wander from the straight line, to be and think for themselves.
This was the wounded school of right wounding me further.
Leading beyond the edge
Not surprisingly, research suggests that children who are the most creative are less likely to garner favoritism from teachers than students who conform more to teacher/behavioral expectations. Those rare souls that deviate and stand out from the straight line of expectations and conformity are more likely to become eminent leaders, change-makers, rebels with a cause.
I’m reminded of this quote by Apple, Inc:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
A world that is addicted to control, including self-control, does not want this. It loathes and fears anyone and anything that may challenge right, and more to the point, threaten the compensatory coping mechanisms protecting the pain of feeling wrong.
We don’t like to feel, for there is a tremendous amount of energy invested in who we think we should be, in how we protect ourselves, in keeping ourselves together, in the right ways of being. We don’t realize this because we cannot feel how deeply we have been hurt.
And so the disease of being right keeps us from taking risks, standing out, being unique. It keeps kids desperately afraid to fail. It keeps them seeking approval from others who are as clueless as anyone else. It keeps them obedient to authority instead of trusting the inner authority, the crazy one inside who cannot lead while bound by obedience to controlling systems. It keeps them believing that they are creatively impotent, they have nothing to offer, their ideas useless. It keeps them afraid to turn those scissors away from the straight line at the cost of disappointing or frightening others.
Yet, show me a great leader, an esteemed change-maker who did not make people feel uncomfortable and unhappy; who did not stir the pot of convenience, wiggle that tight rope we call life, the one we walk along so cautiously. Discomfort and unhappiness is a result of attachment to the straight line, to our ideas of right and wrong.
Right is a powerful weapon
Much of the so-called leadership documented in human history—religious, state and more—displayed a clear lack of compassionate heart. If anything, it was vastly abusive. The fixed and dogmatic ideas of right and wrong—of righteousness—was the weapon of choice.
Right is a powerful weapon for those at the head of the table. There is no better example of this than in religion, specifically Christianity. Fail to accept that Jesus died for your sins and deny their monotheism and you are off to hell, perhaps with some form of torture and imprisonment prior to your departure. But do as is expected and ensure loyalty to the Church and its power over you, and you will go to Heaven.
Just look the persecution of pagans, the destruction of their temples and abolition of their holidays, festivals and ritual; the perception of heretical witchcraft and the subsequent burning of pagans at the stake; their ideas and ways a threat to the controlling Church, to the controlling God who forbade worship of other deities. Or we can see how the weapon was used to colonize countless indigenous people around the world; in Africa, the Amazon, in North America, where children were stolen from homes, abusively forced to forget their language and memorize Biblical text, were sexually abused, all under the auspices of Christian belief, the right way. Or, going back to education, we can look at how Protestant reformers originally created schools to act as correctional institutions aimed at breaking the will of children seen as born sinners, threatening them with everlasting damnation, justifying beatings with narrow-minded and ill ideas of right. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the Rod correction shall drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15).
Heaven and hell, right and wrong, beliefs forever linked and associated with countless human atrocities; stories used to justify unimaginable suffering, to exert and maintain power, to protect and uphold righteousness. It is no wonder we have a society primed to obey, to follow orders and stay on the “right” track.
There was a time when the Latin word “daemon” circulated freely in our villages. It means one’s calling, guardian spirit, or inner genius. “Eudaimonia”, which contains the Greek version “daimon”, means welfare or happiness. For one to live a happy life, it was recognized that one must honor their inner authority and follow their heart. In the third century, the anti-pagan Church eventually caught wind of this heresy and changed daemon to demon to represent something evil, to instill fear and disinterest in self-autonomy, and grant power back to the Church, their weapon, their disease.
It’s hard to listen when diseased
One of the most prevalent, and perhaps obvious symptoms of the disease of being right is poor listening. Right keeps us stirring in our head, in our stories of right and wrong, in our fearful scheming on how to best protect our agendas and impose them onto others; we do this everywhere, including, of course, while others are speaking to us, sharing their points of view, their heart’s desire.
One could say this is natural—to think of what we want to say and quietly build agendas in our minds during conversation. But maybe it is more natural to temporary suspend our agendas and get out of the way to be present with another in their reality. This feels far from natural because we find it incredibly difficult to communicate without an agenda. Ask a parent, teacher, boss, let alone a friend how hard it is to hold the agenda of another—to ask questions instead of state the answer, to allow and empathize instead of fix, to observe instead of direct.
It is hard and feels unnatural, for, who would we be without our agendas, our disease of being right?
Listening requires us to let go of control, to lay down our weapon, and part of this means assuming we don’t know. They know. They are the experts, not us. The pagans know what is good for them, so do the Jews and Palestinians. But we don’t think this way, and for this reason, struggle to temporarily drop our agenda and give another’s room to breathe.
More deeply, our inability to quiet our discursive mind and be present with another stems from and is an expression of our wounds—the pain from once being open and deeply hurt. It is difficult to trust another’s point of view when stern and rigid agendas left a deep wound in our impressionable heart. It is frightening if we learned it was unsafe to have a secure attachment—a connection.
Yet, the heart of communication is indeed connection. It opens a pathway from me to you, from my heart and mind to yours. When we have a connection with someone we feel safe to open to them, trust them, learn from them, hear them and loosen our grip of our agenda. We feel into each other, and thus can more easily relax into the conversation, unguarded, no longer needing to defend our ideas of right and wrong. From this place, it is much easer to find common ground.
We forget that connection does not require agreement; rather, it requires us to simply accept another’s point of view, to have the courage to let go and let in; to say, “I don’t agree with you, and I’m still with you.” How many times would you have loved to hear that in your life?
Ask a bitter teenager what they want and you’ll find, perhaps with some digging, that they’d simply love to be heard, to have their points of view and interests validated, seen as important. They are sick and tired of being told what to think and do, of others infecting them with their disease. Their anger is a fierce rebuttal to the disease we carry and a fierce cry out on behalf of the daemon that longs to be honored.
If you want kids to open to your point of view you may have to first accommodate theirs instead of spreading your disease, your ideas of the right way. Truth is, you know far less than you think in regards to what is best for teenagers (and adults), why they are here on this planet, where they ought to go, what their soul is here to learn, and the necessary ups and downs—life’s curriculum—needed such that they grow in the way they are meant to.
Listening begins when you let people be, trust their path, and open to truth beyond right and wrong. Not easy, but necessary.
Finding truth beyond right and wrong
If you want to find truth look in two places:
Your heart: The heart is not interested in dualistic or polarizing perspectives; it does not live in right and wrong, but beyond both. “But we need right and wrong, otherwise there would be anarchy!” I can hear some say. Bear in mind who or what is saying that—the mind, the same fearful mind that has enforced this very belief for thousands of years; the same fearful mind that, at some point, was conditioned not to trust the heart, its daemon.
For good reasons, some of which I’ve already stated, we do not trust our world, our God, or ourselves, to live without these moral controls and rigid dogma; to live without heaven and hell; without teachers who assume to know what we ought to learn, priests who assume to know what we ought to believe, and parents who assume to know how we ought to conduct ourselves. For, trickled down through the collective unconscious and our inter-generational trauma is a deep fear, from centuries of oppression and persecution, of thinking for ourselves, trusting our daemon, and forging our own distinctive pathways.
It is perfectly understandable, therefore, that a nervous system wired for what is right as a means of self-preservation resists the unchartered, the unconventional, what is deemed as wrong by the majority. Neurological pathways wired for generations for an external locus of control will naturally struggle to grant power to their daemon and stand out.
And so the risk is in trusting the heart, for it knows a different kind of right, not objectively- or conformist-based, but rather rooted in subjective experience; an inner rightness or knowing unique to you, your needs and purpose for being here, one that will lead you along the path least traveled.
Only the heart can lead you from the straight line to your sinuous path, to the compelling way that in no way can be standardized.
Nature: Non-binary truth is also found in nature. Show me right and wrong in our natural world. Tell me if animals, trees, oceans and clouds exist by the polarities the human mind are trapped in. No, they just live instinctually, harmoniously with the rhythms of life, in attuned alignment with the wild and unfathomable intelligence of nature.
When you look at people when they speak of what’s right and wrong, or the way things “should” be, you’ll notice that they often straighten their hand, close (tighten) their fingers, and bounce them up and down like a karate chop. But when they speak of what brings them joy, their body instinctually offers itself in fluid, uplifting movements. Nothing in nature moves or shapes itself in a straight line, for there are no expressions of right in the wild. It is unnatural. In fact, nature moves in spirals, from our DNA, to seashells, to water, wind and the galaxies. Looking at the miracle of the human body we see our finger and toe prints spiral, as do the follicles of our hair in how they spiral outwards from the crown. Even our breath spirals inwards; hence, respiration—we are literally re-spiraling air into our lungs every time we inhale. And we find the wriggly expression of the spiral in how children move in their endless twists and turns. It is no wonder some say they are “closest to God”, closest to the intelligence of Life, to Mother Nature, moving like a helicopter seed or dancing, twisting ravens.
We’d do well to model ourselves after nature, to be wild like ravens, wind and stars; to once again inhabit the raw spontaneous immanence of children; to build our infrastructure inspired by, and in harmony with the land, as demonstrated through the works of biomimicry; and to encourage children to act on their natural impulses, like the one 14 year old Rachel Brouwer had to create an award-winning water purification system. She listened to her heart that listened to nature and its needs.
Yet, in dramatic and traumatic fashion we are seeing the consequences of disassociating ourselves from the ecosystems we are inextricably linked with. There is a direct correlation between the disease of being right and our disrespect of Mother Earth. The inner toxicity of right spills into rivers, soil and air. The insidious traumas informing the disease are the same traumas that fuel the rampant malpractices of industrial agriculture, including the chemical spraying of our air and soil, the cruel treatment of animals, the genetic modification of food, the patenting of seeds, and the pollution of our water resources. Arrogantly, in our myopic righteousness, we think we can control Mother Nature and pack more and more of it on our endless straight conveyor belts; but slowly we are learning that we cannot win over the intelligence of life that presides over our limited dualism.
Desensitize to our own sense of being wrong and we justify our insensitive actions as being right. Desensitize to our pain, to our wounded heart, and we struggle to feel the pain of Mother Earth and its manifold sentient beings.
Healing the heart
I cannot expect the heads of industrial-based organizations and religious and educational institutions to sense or feel what I could not while cloaked by self-preservation. I did not know how hard I was being on myself, and others, let alone where my impulses were coming from. I did not see my actions as abusive inwardly and outwardly, my need to push, perform, demand and judge. I was not aware of how insensitive I was, for I had trained myself to desensitize to my own pain, to the disease that ran through me. And so while I point out the insidiousness of the disease in our world, I also hold compassion for the underlying pain that drives it.
Healing this pain begins with healing the heart, with allowing the heart to grow bright and strong enough such that the extremes of right and wrong melt in its burning cauldron, leaving us closer to nature, to our natural state where right and wrong don’t exist. This is not an easy journey, but a deeply necessary one, for the painful imprint right continues to leave on humanity and Mother Earth cannot afford to get much deeper.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart