The Toe-stomping Dance of Right and Wrong

A thought came to me lying abed last week, early early early in the morning when I really ought to have been sleeping. I do some of my most creative thinking in the wee hours (why is that, anyway?). I’ve been wanting to write about it ever since, and hey, that’s what a blog is for, yes?

The thought I had was this: As long as we see another person’s or group’s actions as “wrong,” we can never truly be collaborators with them. The best we can hope for is cooperation based on fear of punishment.

So what the heck am I talking about? I’m passionate about the evolution of consciousness, and I think our culture’s fixation on the idea of right and wrong is one of the core causes of suffering in our world. When things go awry, we habitually seek outside ourselves for who or what is to blame, and when we find the “guilty” party, we energetically pursue what we call justice. By which we mean punishment.

The roots of this habit are deep and complex. One of the main roots is the very structure of our relationships. Ours is a societal system defined by hierarchy, an all-pervasive power-over structure wherein those in authority define the rules and everyone else follows the rules and are rewarded accordingly, or break the rules and suffer punishment. I say all-pervasive, because hierarchical structures are a part of virtually every aspect of our lives. Our families, workplaces, churches, clubs and associations, our governments, and even relations between nations are infused with hierarchical structures. Someone is the boss, at every level.

Punishment can be carried out by our official justice system, in cases where the rule being broken is one of those our society leaders have written down. Or punishment can be a result of societal pressure around one of our culture’s myriad unwritten rules, resulting in anything from mild embarrassment to ostracism.

Okay. So what?

Joyful collaboration, aside from being just plain fun and a great source of soul happy juice, is what is required to create durable agreements that work for people. When we reach agreement through compromise (which we teach is poison to relationships and agreements–more on that later), or coercion of any kind, our agreement will only last as long as the pressure that brought it into being is kept in place. Imagine a little boy who hits another kid and is scolded by his teacher. The boy may soon have an impulse to hit another kid. When he does, he’ll turn around to see if his teacher is watching. If the teacher’s head is turned away, kapowie! The little boy is obedient to authority only as long as authority is paying attention. Us so-called grown ups are no different. If we are coerced into an agreement, we are likely to jump at the first chance to back out.

Durable agreements are those that meet the needs of all parties involved. Additionally, our expectation that any agreement be carved in marble is unrealistic and sets us up for failure. Humans are not static creatures. Static, stone-carved agreements don’t match how and who we really are. Of course they will break down. Agreements better serve us when they are kept in place only as long as they continue to meet needs. When an agreement stops meeting needs fully, then the most effective course for the long term happiness of those involved is to renegotiate the agreement. That is why collaboration is so important. Without it, we’re just clodhoppers in the dance hall of life, continually stomping on one another’s toes.

Hey, wait a minute! Hitting another person is just wrong… Isn’t it?

Aha, now we’re gettin’ into the good stuff. I am deeply inspired by the idea that everything anyone ever does, they do for one reason only. Every choice you make, every choice I make, we have but one motivation, and that is to get our needs met in the best way we know how in the present moment. Another way to say that is nobody ever does anything wrong. Consider this quote from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, whose work is a foundation of my own and a deep inspiration to me:

“When we understand the needs that motivate another’s behavior, we have no enemies.”

The needs being referred to are what we all long for to survive and thrive in life. They are universal: inner peace, meaning, play, contribution, intimacy. If we are able to connect with the need that is driving another person to do what they do, we cannot help but connect with our shared humanity and very likely with our compassion for their choice. From that compassionate state, we can work together to find ways to truly collaborate. Marshall calls this game “making life wonderful.” And why should we settle for lives that aren’t wonderful?

What I love about this is that it gives me hope for our species. When I keep my attention and curiosity tuned into the deeper reasons that might be motivating another to do what they are doing, I’m more likely to be in touch with my natural compassion. Conversely, when I’m unhappy or hurting I can learn to tune into my own inner needs, rather than seeking outside myself for someone to blame or criticize. Recognizing that my emotions and reactions are never somebody else’s fault and speaking from that consciousness can help to inspire compassion in others. When I’m able to express what it is I’m longing for in terms of universal human needs, I’m much more likely to get the help I’d like to make my life more enjoyable.

When I’m seeing the humanity in others in spite of what they say or do, and expressing my own needs free of judgment and blame, I get to join a dance of joyful collaboration, where what we create together is great fun and inspiring to see.

And a lot easier on my toes.

Leave a comment