Would you rather be right or be happy?

Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I was in the stores this weekend-lots of people wandering around trying to find gifts, many as bemused and overwhelmed (and probably frustrated) as I was. We experience so many emotions around the holidays: happiness, excitement, gratitude, anxiety, pressure, anticipation, disappointment, sadness, frustration, loneliness, joy, love. For children, the holidays are often (usually) filled with excitement and anticipation - school vacation, the thought of presents, the excitement of possibility. For adults, our excitement may be tinged with heavier things: responsibility or loss, for example.

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Our experiences vary from year to year. We may be giddy with excitement at our first holiday meal or party in our own home, or overwhelmed by the responsibility of carrying on family traditions. We may be rejoicing because we can finally do the holidays "right" because we enjoyed financial success this year-a raise or a new job-or we may be trying to figure out how to manage a celebration in the face of a job loss or other financial uncertainty.

We may be enjoying our first holiday season with someone special, or trying to figure out how to get through the holidays after the loss of a loved one. Or we may be feeling (guilty) relief in knowing that someone who caused us pain will not be part of our family celebration this year (or ever again). Family holiday gatherings have so much potential for joy or for conflict-or both.

I read an article recently that dealt with potential family, and other, conflicts. One of the suggestions that the author offered was, when faced with an argument, to ask ourselves "Would I rather be right, or would I rather be happy?" The suggestion made me smile - I've heard it before, and it always brings a wry bit of humor as I remember all the futile squabbles about who forgot to do what, or who remembers more exactly the details of a particular experience. The urge to be right can be overwhelming!

There are times, of course, when being right is important. But in many of our daily interactions one has to wonder: how important is this really? What is required here is not the "OK, fine, you win" response. Rather it requires a letting go of the need to be right, a stepping away, a relinquishment, a generosity-putting the relationship before the ego.

And the ego wants so badly to win, to be right! Sometimes people and relationships end up being sacrificed on the altar of our need to be right. Think of people in your own family who still don't speak to each other, or avoid family gatherings completely, years after a disagreement, each holding on to their role as the victim, the wronged one-each needing to be right.

As with most spiritual practices, this one takes some work. (And this is why they are called "practices!") It can be really hard to set the ego aside, to bite our tongues, to let it go. It may take a lot of practice to get to the point of actually doing it with any sincerity or grace or generosity of spirit, to be able to simply say "You may be right!" and move on with a smile and a lightness of heart.

Many spiritual traditions teach about the need to let go, about having no attachment to results, about generosity of spirit and kindness. Jewish tradition, for example, speaks of chesed, loving kindness. And Jesus instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, and to love one another. We often think that these things require big actions or big sacrifices. But it is most often in our daily interactions with others and in our closest and most intimate relationships that we are offered endless opportunities to put these spiritual teachings into practice.

So, the next time you and a loved one are locked into one of those endless-loop arguments, stop and ask yourself "How important is this really?" And then ask yourself "Would I rather be right, or would I rather be happy?" It may be that this one is important, and you need to be right. But it may also be that happiness and peace of mind are more important, and that you can let it go, releasing energy for more valuable, more nurturing, and more pleasant things. I know from experience how difficult this can be. But in this season of giving, what a generous and loving gift to give to the other person, what a generous and loving gift to give ourselves-and what freedom we gain.

• The Rev. Kathleen Wakefield is the associate priest at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.



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