I know you won’t agree with me,” she started out, “but I can’t go along with this author’s position.” I listened to her argument for a bit and then said, “You’re right. I don’t agree with you.” She defended her position; I defended mine. She clarified; I re-clarified. Suddenly I thought,”This disagreement is not necessary!” I looked around and saw the expressions on the faces of the other class members; most were confused or mildly upset, but one of them was grinning. He and I said the same thing at the same time: “It doesn’t matter who is right!” With some chagrin, I added, “Maybe this point of difference needs more contemplation.”
As I think about this now, the chagrin is joined by embarrassment. This is a class during which we often talk about being addicted to our own thinking. And I, the teacher, was proving the point! I was trained, subtly and not so subtly, by my parents, my church, and my community that it is important to always be right. Issues have two or more sides and we must be on the right one – even if we destroy relationships by insisting on our correctness.
I have good company. Two of my favorite disciples of Jesus, Peter and Paul, began their lives after his death by insisting that they were right about the next steps. It took a vision from God to convince Peter that he was wrong when he insisted that Gentiles could not be brought into the church. It took another vision to Paul to halt his rampage of persecution of Christians. Both were convicted by the Holy Spirit – as was I.
As I thought about this seemingly intractable attitude which I have spent decades trying to eliminate, I was reminded of a phone call this week with the company that provides my diabetic supplies and submits the bill to Medicare. It didn’t take long for that call to turn into “who’s right.” The customer service representative said, I cannot fulfill your order for supplies because Dr. Smith has not returned some information needed for processing the Medicare bill. I asked, “Who’s Dr. Smith.
She replied, “Your doctor!”
I said, “My doctor’s name is not Smith.”
She said, “Just a moment.” I was on hold for a while and then she said, “Well, it says that Dr. Smith is your doctor. Is he associated with your doctor’s practice?”
I said, “No! Are you looking at the right account?” There was a brief pause and she said, “What is your last name again?” I told her. She began apologizing. The issue was not resolved even after that mistake was corrected. But the interchange gave me new insight into the “I must be right” addiction. Most of the time this behavior is evidence of a stubborn control problem. But sometimes we are right! And sometimes it’s important to keep pursuing the truth.
I discovered that day that there is a fine line between needing to be right and wanting to be understood. Perhaps asking these two questions will help conquer my default attitude when my position is challenged: Am I insisting on my position because it is crucial in this situation that I be understood? Or does my prideful nature just want to be right?
No matter what our motivation for being right we have a few choices if we are ready to give up the title of “#1 Always Right person.” We can stop talking, put down the gloves, and move into separate corners. Or we can choose to be kind rather than being right – and give way graciously. Or we can learn how to graciously handle difficult conversations. An article in News from Hope College (Volume 19, No. 2) describes the values needed to foster civil conversation, based on the book After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. Here they are:
- Humility to listen – we don’t have all the answers; sometimes we must learn from the insights of others
- Hospitality to welcome – we need to welcome divergent points of view by creating a safe place for expression.
- Patience to understand – “patience is the willingness and the fortitude to stay engaged” while listening so that I can understand another’s point of view.
- Courage to Challenge – we must be brave enough to express our convictions even when it may be dangerous or unpopular.
- Honesty to speak the truth in love – “honesty fosters an open environment that encourages growth and leads to real progress.”
Practicing these values will help us live in harmony with others and fulfill the commission that Jesus gave us to love our neighbors as ourselves.