“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” That quotable rhetorical question is attributed to TV talk show host Dr. Phil. The first time I heard it posed, my immediate internal sarcastic response was, “I’ll be happy when ‘they’ acknowledge I’m right.” I resented the suggestion the choice was binary. I resisted the idea that my happiness could only be achieved if I allowed others to be painfully wrong, uncorrected.
Then when my ex-husband and I split up, I heard another variation. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be divorced?” The meaning was clear; in order for the separation and divorce to progress there would inevitably be things I’d have to compromise on.
Another person put it this way, “Is that the hill you want to die on?” What a refreshing dose of perspective! When I don’t see eye to eye with someone, this is the question I strive to ask myself before engaging in a confrontation. I’m naturally non-confrontational, so the answer is almost always, “no.”
Except on Facebook.
I didn’t start out nine years ago as confrontational internet troll. I shared photos of my kids and my meals and kitten memes like everyone else. But two presidential election cycles took their toll, and I found myself asking that question a lot. Then, I found myself asking it a little less. Nine times out of ten, I ask that question, and nine times out of ten when I ask that question, it has been my choice to be happy rather than publicly right. If I had a dime for every time I didn’t respond to someone I disagreed with, I’d be a very rich woman. Still, it has been disheartening to discover so many other people I know and love who appear to care more about being right than happy. With so many people drunk on their own self-righteousness, is it any wonder I found it difficult to remain “sober” myself?
Those one times out of ten when I chose being right offered me enough proof that the choice really is binary – being right did not bring happiness, but its opposite.
I hit bottom, you could say. Someone posted something that I took personally, that I experienced as a public shaming, and instead of letting it go, I took the bait. I responded. I knew (and still know) I was right. And it made me miserable. So, I quit, cold turkey. No more Facebook on my phone or on my computer. No more Messenger. If someone wants to have a relationship with me, let it happen the old-fashioned way, with interpersonal communication. They know my phone number, I reasoned.
In Sunday’s old testament reading the prophet Ezekiel gives his reason for choosing to be right over being happy: “If . . . you don’t speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked will surely die from his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” I think of all the self-righteous jerks (yours truly among them) who have used that passage of scripture to justify their nanny-state finger wagging, and I shudder. Last time I looked at my birth certificate, the name on it was not “Ezekiel,” and I don’t know anyone else by that name either. Sure, we may have been baptized “priest, prophet, and king,” but we were baptized into Christ, who gave a richer, more descriptive directive for us for when we find ourselves right, or being wronged.
Matthew’s Gospel passage last weekend lays out step by step the approach to be both right and happy. First, confront the person who has wronged you privately, one on one. If that doesn’t work, confront him with one or two witnesses (not an entire social network). If that still doesn’t work, take it to the church (or the socially trusted arbiter of morality and justice, which again, is not the court of public opinion on Facebook). And if he still refuses to listen even to the church, then, and only then, is it acceptable to treat him, as Jesus puts it, like a gentile or tax collector; in other words, like an outcast.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He reminds us all that while we may be justified in shutting out the evil-doers in our lives, we still have the authority, power, and choice to let it go. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
I can let my righteousness bind me forever to a person whose beliefs, actions, and attitudes irritate or run contrary to me. Or I can free myself. Jesus gave us that power. We can be right, but we don’t have to be smug about it. We can even let it go.
When I was in seventh grade, there was a girl in one of my classes who for some unknown reason decided she didn’t like me and wanted to fight me. I’m not talking a verbal argument; she wanted to physically beat me up, and she tried to bait me into fighting her at lunch. It would have been no contest. She was twice my size and mean as hell. She was also all bark and no bite. “Why won’t you fight me?” she taunted. “Are you scared?”
In seventh grade I’d stay awake for hours at night thinking up witty retorts to the insults I would receive daily from my verbally abusive classmates. I was never very quick in the moment, but hours later, I’d fantasize about what I could have said. I can’t say that it brought me peace, but at least it helped me sleep at night.
So when this girl wanted to fight me, I don’t know where the words (or the courage) came from, but the words that came out of my mouth were, “No, you’re just not worth it.” That mean 160lb 12-year-old who’d had it out for me all year never bothered me again.
Most of the time, being right isn’t worth it either. “Being right” is the bully who wants to make others feel small so they can feel important, or relevant, or smart, or righteous. Today, I can take some pointers from my 12-year-old self, wise beyond her years, and my Savior. Being right is not worth it. Taking a break from Facebook is the best strategy I could employ to avoid the bullies there who want to pick fights, or worse, to avoid becoming one myself.
I don’t plan on dying on any hills that social media serves up.