The Freedom of Being: Beyond Right/Wrong

The Free­dom of Being: Beyond Right/Wrong, Win/Lose, etc.

By Larry Pearson

Taken from The Land­mark Newsletter

Land­mark Forum Lead­ers in Conversation

This pas­sage comes from The New York Times: “Long before seat belts or com­mon sense were par­tic­u­larly wide­spread, my fam­ily made annual trips to New York in our sta­tion wagon. Mom and Dad took the front seat, my infant sis­ter sat in my mother’s lap and my brother and I had the back all to our­selves. We’d lounge around doing puz­zles, read­ing comics, and count­ing license plates. Even­tu­ally we’d fight. When our fight had finally esca­lated to the point of tears, our mother would turn around to chas­tise us, and my brother and I would start to plead our cases. ‘But he hit me first,’ one of us would say, to which the other would inevitably add, ‘But he hit me harder.’

It turns out that my brother and I were not alone in believ­ing that these two claims can get a puncher off the hook. In vir­tu­ally every human soci­ety, ‘He hit me first’ pro­vides an accept­able ratio­nale for doing that which is oth­er­wise for­bid­den. It is thought that a punch thrown sec­ond is legally and morally dif­fer­ent than a punch thrown first. The prob­lem with the prin­ci­ple of even-numberedness is that peo­ple count dif­fer­ently. Peo­ple think of their own actions as the con­se­quences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later, and that their rea­sons and pains are more pal­pa­ble, more obvi­ous and real, than that of others.” *

The stuff of wars, soap operas, divorce courts, Ham­let, and more all bor­row on that equa­tion, as do we. While we might wish we’d left that even-numberedness to our child­hood and ado­les­cence, it’s not to be. The dynamic of deal­ing with issues that are unwanted, yet per­sist con­tin­ues to play out in board rooms, neigh­bor­hoods, mar­riages, and between nations—we jus­tify, we blame, we complain.

Issues that are unwanted, yet per­sist can be a pow­er­ful impe­tus for change, as evi­denced by the progress of human rights, for exam­ple. But there’s another world of things that are unwanted, yet persist—things that we com­plain about over and over, like some aspect of our rela­tion­ships or jobs that is not work­ing, and yet we find our­selves keep­ing around.

If we put what’s “unwanted, yet per­sists” together with “fixed ways of being,” we get what we call a “racket.” It’s a “mashup” of sorts (a web buzz­word). In a mashup, one web appli­ca­tion is com­bined with another, mak­ing both appli­ca­tions more pro­duc­tive and robust—you get some­thing greater than the sum of the parts. If you mash up what’s unwanted, yet per­sists (which is most likely occur­ring as a com­plaint) and a fixed way of being, you also get some­thing greater than the sum of its parts, but in this case, the yield heads in the wrong direction—the com­bi­na­tion is unpro­duc­tive or more accu­rately, counterproductive.

com­plaint is some kind of opin­ion or judg­ment of the way things “should” or “shouldn’t be.” The eval­u­a­tive com­po­nent isn’t a com­men­tary on facts that are true or false, accu­rate or not, but again how we think thingsshould be. By fixed way of being we mean act­ing in a pre­dictable and repet­i­tive man­ner (like always frus­trated, always upset, always angry, always nice, always annoyed, always sus­pi­cious, always con­fused, etc.). What­ever ourfixed way of being is, it’s not some­thing we have a choice over. It’s just there—it shows up auto­mat­i­cally when the com­plaint shows up. It’s also worth not­ing that a recur­ring com­plaint doesn’t cause the way of being, nor does the way of being cause the recur­ring complaint—they sim­ply come together in one pack­age. The whole point here, though, is that it’s a fixed way of being, not a pos­si­ble way of being.

The term “racket” comes from the days of big-city gang­sters and street-level crim­i­nals who con­ducted ques­tion­able activities—loan-sharking, bribery, larceny—usually set up to get some kind of pay­off, cam­ou­flaged by an accept­able cover above sus­pi­cion. In a “rack­e­teer­ing” oper­a­tion, the efforts at con­ceal­ing what’s going on behind the scenes can become quite elab­o­rate so as to pro­tect and ensure the suc­cess of the oper­a­tion. We bor­row the term racket as it’s applic­a­ble to our con­tem­po­rary lives and because it car­ries with it many of the same properties—deception, smoke screens, pay­offs, etc.

Some­times per­sis­tent com­plaints orig­i­nate with us, other times they come at us from some­one else. It’s harder to see that we’re in “racket mode” with com­plaints that come at us, because it looks like some­body else is the per­sis­tent com­plainer, and we just an inno­cent bystander. But under closer scrutiny, it turns out we too have complaints—complaints about their com­plaints. Our match­ing com­plaint might show up like, “don’t they under­stand, don’t they know how it is for me, why are they nag­ging, don’t they see every­thing I’m doing for them?” When we com­plain, we feel quite jus­ti­fied that our response is appro­pri­ate to the situation.

We explain the ratio­nale behind our com­plaints to inter­ested (and unin­ter­ested) par­ties, and point out how pleased we are with our­selves for tak­ing the nec­es­sary steps to sort things out—we have a cer­tain fond­ness for our attempts, for “try­ing.” We might get our friends, fam­ily, or cowork­ers to agree that we’re deal­ing with our com­plaints the best we can. If they point out that per­haps we’re the one per­pet­u­at­ing the prob­lem, we could feel mis­un­der­stood, put out, even busted. Seen from a dis­tance, there can be some­thing almost endear­ing about how we go about all this—as if it’s part of our authen­tic and sin­cere spirit—but actu­ally, our ratio­nale for doing what we do is another thing entirely. This is the cam­ou­flage or cover-up part. The decep­tive nature of a racket and the allure of the pay­off keep us from real­iz­ing the full impact rack­ets have in our lives.

The pay­offs for keep­ing rack­ets around usu­ally show up in sev­eral ways: being right and mak­ing oth­ers wrong (not the fac­tual kind of right, but think­ing that we are right and the other per­son is wrong), being dom­i­nat­ing or avoid­ing dom­i­na­tion, jus­ti­fy­ing our­selves and inval­i­dat­ing oth­ers (attribut­ing cause to some thing or per­son other than our­selves), engag­ing in the win/lose dynamic (not “win­ning” like a cel­e­bra­tion with tro­phies, applause, or con­grat­u­la­tions to the oppo­nent, but win­ning such that some­one else is the loser or is less­ened in some way). These pay­offs are like facets of a diamond—although one facet might be more dom­i­nant than another (and we might deny or not be aware that some aspect of a pay­off is active in our case), they’re really all at play.

The pull of these pay­offs is often com­pelling enough to get us to give up love, vital­ity, self-expression, health, and hap­pi­ness. That’s a ridicu­lously strong force. Those costs are the stan­dard fare of a racket.  It’s pretty obvi­ous that we can’t be happy, vital, and lov­ing while we’re mak­ing some­one wrong, dom­i­nat­ing some­one, being right, or jus­ti­fy­ing ourselves—one dis­places the other. This is where choice comes into the picture.

Rack­ets, although one thing, have two forms of exis­tence (some­what like ice and steam are two forms of H2O). One form of a racket shows up as “I am X, Y, or Z.” The sec­ond shows up as “ahhh, I have a racket that is X, Y, or Z.” When we are the racket, it shapes and deter­mines our way of being. But when we have a racket, it has very lit­tle power over our way of being. We have a choice about what’s at play—about giv­ing up our rack­ets, our posi­tions, our unpro­duc­tive ways of being. When we elect to trans­form our default ways of being—being right, com­ing out on top (the even-numberedness, so to speak)—we move to a place of free­dom, a place of pos­si­bil­ity. The ques­tion then becomes: How do I express my life? What would be, for me, the most extra­or­di­nary, cre­ated, invented life?  It becomes a mat­ter of art, of design. How extra­or­di­nary are the every­day aspects of our lives; how rich our lives are, how full of oppor­tu­nity, when we act on the pos­si­bil­ity of liv­ing life fully.

* Adapted from Daniel Gilbert, New York Times, 7/24/06.

Click HERE for The Rela­tion­ship Saver, The Fast Track Man­ual for Sav­ing your Relationship.



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