“When given the choice between being right or being kind,
– R.J. Palacio, Wonder
Ever wonder what the world would be like if we lived by this maxim? What would your family life be like? – Your workplace? – Your child’s school?
I’ve spent the past year of my life reflecting on this quote, making it a mantra during some meditations, and trying to act upon it more often in daily conflicts.
This, it turns out, can be remarkably difficult for those of us raised to always try to “get it right.” Much of our modern culture is heavily performance or achievement oriented. We need to perpetually prove ourselves, validate our very worth, by getting A’s on tests and report cards, or getting 5 out of 5 ratings on our performance appraisals at work.
Always do your best. Strive to be the best. You’re better than that! These are well-meaning phrases we repeat to our kids over and over. And certainly there is some value in encouraging our children to put forth effort and to try to do well. But have we gone too far?
Yes, some of the troubles with children today relate to not having enough persistence or grit. They give up too easily, at the first hint of hardship. So it is important to teach our children to persevere, and have them learn how to gain satisfaction from working on something that was difficult.
The kindest, most loving and effective way we can do this is to encourage those very qualities – persistence, determination, sustained effort – even when it’s not immediately gratifying. We want to praise our children’s efforts, more than focusing on the outcome. Attend to the process, more than the product. Reinforce children for developing a calm and steady work ethic, more than heaping praise and gold stars on every successful outcome.
Too often we over-focus on that outcome and do our children a cruel disservice. This leads to an even bigger problem we face with kids today – perfectionism. We have kids (and their parents and teachers) struggling with so much undue anxiety and stress about the perpetual need to be perfect.
Straight A’s in school are no longer an indication of unusual excellence. They’ve become the standard for an increasing majority of kids who feel like they’re a failure if they don’t get them.
And the need to always be right, to be perfect, is not just an academic issue. We worship the star athlete, the lead in the class play, the concert soloist, the most popular or cool kid. We hear TV and radio talk show hosts pontificating, arguing their point of view as the (only) right one.
Conflict sells. So often the loudest, most controversial, and most obnoxious voices get the most coverage. They get the highest ratings in commercial media and most retweets in social media. “Reality TV” that started out as a fun diversion from real life, has transformed all the way to the White House as a real-life horror show.
Too much of our social discourse has become all about proving that you’re right. You and like-minded people (your group/team/organization/political party) are absolutely right, and that means “the others” are absolutely wrong. And if we think others are wrong, we don’t just critique their opinions calmly and rationally. We ridicule and shame, we become hostile and sometimes violent.
Our society has become so polarized, primarily out of frustration and fear. Often, what we fear is that we may be wrong. We may be inadequate (not perfect). We may be left out or rejected. To prove our value, to feel safe and right and worth something, we attack others. Civility, let alone kindness, be damned.
This is classic “fight or flight” stress reactions, taken to epidemic proportions. Too many of us, too often, are so busy swimming in this toxic sea of stress, we don’t even see it. We’re too busy reacting to it.
What if we chose a different way? What if we woke up, and remembered what matters most to us. To be loved and appreciated for who we are, just as we are – without the need to defend or attack. And without the need to be perfectly right all the time.
What if we lived our lives the way that Auggie Pullman, 5th grader extraordinaire, encourages us to in the life-affirming book (now movie) Wonder…
“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
Here’s to living our lives remembering that, when faced with the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind. Or, as the Dalai Lama reminds us, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
I’m still working on it. I hope you will too.