The Definition of “Right” and “Wrong”

I love the Neale Donald Walsh quote about the loaded meaning of two words, right and wrong. He wrote:

“The idea that you call ‘right’ is the idea someone else calls ‘wrong.’ The solution that you call ‘perfect’ is the solution that another calls ‘unworkable.’ The position that you feel is unassailable is the very position that others assail. What will solve all of this? Not attack, that’s for sure. And not defense, either. So what is left? Simple human love. The kind of love that says, ‘It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. It only matters that you are not hurt. And that we both can benefit. All true benefits are mutual.”

Those words were written by Mr. Walsh, a very well-known author and speaker. I am far less known, yet I’ve been pointing out to folks for years that using extremely simplified words and ideas such as right and wrong is painfully divisive. These words are commonly used at home and at work, in so many fields such as education, politics, religion, even social work. It is a widely accepted practice all over the world, to label things as right or wrong even though these words step on a lot of toes and trigger a lot of pain and anger. These simple words are for many an invitation to argue or fight, or worse yet,  to pass judgment on one another. “Right” and “wrong” are two of the most explosively judgmental and misunderstood words in any language. The reason? They are loaded; they have esoteric, moral implications which cause all sorts of assumptions and misunderstandings.

Rumi wrote about his intention to meet people out in that field of consciousness beyond all ideas of right and wrong.

Even spiritual leaders and masters do use these shorthand words at times, and I have faith that their meaning is always a compassionate and wise one. They are just using the various languages of this world in the traditional way, which is of course to use shortcuts and shorthand words.  Over time, humanity will evolve toward deeper compassion. I believe the human race will grow and mature to a level of consciousness which values the other’s needs as equal to our own. When humanity makes a concerted effort to create a world of compassion and sharing, then and only then will the world’s languages evolve to where these words “right” and “wrong” will become archaic and rarely used.

But for now, in the early 21st century, you can bet people still use these fighting words. When they do use them in a seemingly judgmental way, I take it as a special invitation and a challenge. The challenge is simply to translate these words into the language of feelings and needs. In particular, to guess at the unmet needs, values and wishes of the people making claims about what is right and wrong. Even if they are quoting from scriptures. Some people seem to have no tolerance for people who argue for religious dogma, and they quickly feel hatred for them. I suggest that the ones caught up in painful fear-based dogma may be needing our compassion and empathy more than anyone.  Except, maybe, for the haters of the dogmatists.

Religious and spiritual authorities do not always mean any judgments when they say right or wrong. As with everyone else, right and wrong are just a quick shorthand. Right is shorthand for what helps to meet some specific and subjective human needs according to their interpretation of certain scriptures they value highly. Wrong is shorthand for what does not help to meet those specific, subjective needs. What is absolutely essential if we are to increase the peace, is to learn the simple skills of nonviolent communication. We need to learn the skills of saying what needs and values we have, what helps to meet them, and what doesn’t. Also how we feel when they are met and unmet.  We need to get clear on objective, universal human needs, not just specific, subjective needs.

I pray that someday the world will slow down enough that people don’t feel so rushed to where they must use this vague, powder-keg shorthand. It is possible to learn to use “right” as a synonym for “correct.”  For example, did I get that phone number right in my records? Why not use “wrong” as a synonym for “incorrect.” Such as, Did I get that phone number wrong somehow?  It is truly not necessary to toss the morally divisive terms “right” and “wrong” around all the time, even when time is of the essence. It may be quick and easy to shout: “He is wrong! That is so wrong! They are absolutely wrong!” But it takes only a few minutes to get specific and to pinpoint the universal human needs that one is trying to address or fulfill.

So instead of judging and proclaiming, “You’re all wrong!” you might share your truth in a nonjudgmental way. For instance, “When you tell me what you want to buy, I feel irritated and frustrated because I really want to see more mutuality and equality of power in deciding how we spend our budget.  I want to share power with you, rather than anyone having power over the other. How about taking another look at the situation…let’s negotiate a new approach in all fairness.”

In this way, we all will be saying precisely what we mean. And others will understand much more clearly. It would avoid so much painful conflict and separation between friends, family members, spouses, coworkers. Perhaps it would even prevent some wars.  Is that worth a few minutes of focusing on emotional intelligence here and there? I think so!

About swpollack

I’m an independent mediator and collaborative communication coach who can help you to co-create greater ease, connection and mutual understanding in your personal and professional relationships. As a non-traditional specialist, my aim is to get concrete results for my clients in a fraction of the time usually required by traditional therapy and counseling. Please visit my business website: . The emotion-based coaching work I do is deeply therapeutic, yet I am neither a psychologist nor a psychotherapist. Instead I work with a holistic, empathic process called compassionate, nonviolent communication. I also facilitate ongoing support groups for people who want to learn this organic process of nonjudgmental communication to help build bridges of connection, harmony, collaboration and understanding. For more about my Build Compassionate Relationships meetup group, visit: . I’ve been offering these services to the public since 2000 in the greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale area, as well as by phone and through Skype conferencing. . Nonviolent Communication is a process developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It’s based on a very pure, nonjudgmental language of feelings, needs and requests. I’ve found this to be a powerful tool in my mediation work which involves bringing two or more people together despite a painful history of conflict.
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