Reminding Myself That Self-Righteousness Is Not Helpful

In search of a politics of wisdom and compassion, nurtured through mindfulness and lovingkindness

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Even while intending to cultivate equanimity and spaciousness, I notice how easy it is to fall into self-righteousness and indignation as soon as I start thinking about the things I don’t like in the world, especially when they seem to stem from decisions made by human beings. I catch myself “personalizing” something that is actually much bigger than individual villains, even though specific persons are playing various, sometimes awful, roles in what is happening at any one moment.

What come to mind are the very real injustices, social inequities, and exploitation of huge numbers of people and natural resources, often disguised through the misappropriation and corruption of language, so that it is hard to discern what is really going on because words themselves have become a kind of surreal newspeak; the boundless harm that comes from waging endless wars to achieve dubious ends by nefarious means; the sense that those in various positions of power and responsibility are often willing to lie outright, dissimilate, fabricate, coerce, manipulate, deny, cover up, buy allegiances, rationalize whatever they are doing, and do whatever they feel necessary to achieve those dubious ends; the increasingly enormous concentration of power and influence and wealth in the hands of a small number of people and multinational corporate giants who often act as if their interests in power and growth and profits are above all others’ and even above the law.

Then I remember: Even if all that is true to a degree—and I emphasize to a degree—there are at least two problems with my self-righteous attitude: the self part and the righteousness part.

I notice that I never feel self-righteous in response to tornados and hurricanes. I never feel self-righteous about the casualties, destruction, and loss caused by flooding or naturally occurring forest fires or earthquakes despite the enormous toll they can take. Emotions do arise in response to such occurrences, yes, including great sadness, empathy, compassion, and a strong desire to help in some way. But not self-righteousness. Why? I guess because there is no one I can blame for it or impute motive to. Earthquakes just happen. So do tsunamis, hurricanes, and other “natural disasters.” (But of course we now know that global warming due to human activity is a direct cause of more frequent and severe storms, more frequent and severe flooding due to sea level rise, and more frequent and severe forest fires globally.)

Self-righteousness assumes that things “should” be happening differently. But they are happening the way they are happening.

But in the case of a tragedy with a clear “they” behind it—as in “they should have” or “they shouldn’t have” or “how could they?” or “why don’t they?” — there is a sense of agency, along with possible malfeasance, ignorance, greed, irresponsibility, or duplicity, and the impulse to get angry and righteous, to impute motive to a “them” and turn them into the problem, even dehumanize them, arises and blossoms forth in me. And it is particularly strong when I feel that “I” am correct, that my views and opinions are grounded in truth, that “I” know what is going on and can marshal endless corroborating evidence in support of my position. It is even more the case when I “know” that “they” are bending if not breaking the law, dismantling environmental safeguards, trampling on the Constitution, bullying other countries or bribing them, or willfully and systematically concentrating what feels like illegitimate power and influence and wealth and arrogantly exploiting their positions as public servants. And my self-righteousness is an equal opportunity employer — it can condemn folks on all sides of all issues in all cultures, far and wide, even though I don’t know them from Adam or their cultures and mores.

And there is another problem with my self-righteousness. All the things I am objecting to have been going on for centuries. I notice, perusing an outline of early Chinese history in a book of Chuang Tzu’s writings, that in approximately 2205 BCE, a man named Yü is described as the “virtuous founder of the Hsia Dynasty,” and that in 1818 BCE, 400 years later, a man named Chieh is described as “the degenerate terminator of the dynasty.” There have always been cycles of relative tranquility and overriding mayhem, of relative security and rampant insecurity, of relative honesty in public affairs and flagrant dishonesty, of relative goodness and unequivocally evil actions. We can make it personal, blame it on specific individuals, and also take it personally, but it goes much deeper than that.

Perhaps we are all players in some dream movie that only ends when we realize that it is we who are keeping the dream going and that what is most important is for us to wake up. Do we want to keep cycling in this dream sequence by taking sides in the usual dualistic for-or-against struggle and fighting for the best temporary outcome we might manage to get, even as we stay within the dream and, sooner or later, will encounter once again the “degenerate terminator” in the form of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot, a Saddam Hussein, a Pinochet, or some other horrific personification or faceless spasm of ignorance capable of galvanizing and spreading that virus by appealing to and inflaming fear, hatred, and greed in vulnerable and dissatisfied people?

Or do we want to wake up and thereby dampen and perhaps even extinguish these cycles altogether by inviting in an entirely different understanding of the dream itself, the root of the dis-ease, into our consciousness, and by finding ways to catalyze a healthier dynamic equilibrium that recognizes ways to check those more self-centered, greedy, and aversive impulses that drive so many of our actions as individuals, as well as those of our public institutions, and which, sooner or later, always seem to seduce us back to sleep? Or is it not a matter of either/or but of both together, because they are not actually two distinct features of the world but, paradoxically, one seamless whole?

You see the dilemma. Self-righteousness is not helpful, however understandable it may be and on whatever side or issue it may fall. It is not helpful because it assumes that things “should” be happening differently. But the truth of it is that they are happening the way they are happening. This is it, right now, and there is only now.

Should or shouldn’t is irrelevant. It’s part of a story we are telling ourselves that may be blinding us to more imaginative and truer ways to see the situation and to name, if not put an immediate stop to, madness and injustice—as opposed to just changing the cast of characters but keeping the same unexamined, misunderstood, and crazy overall script. The latter is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, building another one after it sinks, and then rearranging the deck chairs again.

We desperately need to learn to trust our direct experience of things, to conjure up the courage to stand inside our convictions based on wise discernment and clear seeing rather than on ideological grounds or venal political correctness. Maybe we need to teach ourselves and let the world teach us how to rest in a brave openness, perceiving what lies behind the veils of appearance and of misinformation, and also beyond our own blindnesses, wishful thinking, and tendencies to turn everything into black or white, good or bad, and lose touch with the degreeness of things.

Can we find ways to embody goodness and at the same time drop the righteousness, which is both corrosive and corrupting?

Yet, within all of this, we still need to ground ourselves in what we are seeing and sensing. We still need to feel our way into what we might do, what we might actually engage in that could make a difference in the world, yet without falling into either our small-minded, fear-based self, with all its problems, or into righteousness, which suggests that we are more morally upright than others, somehow purer, more enlightened, without the taint of guilt or sin, that we are the ones who know. The more we say it or think it, the more likely we are to believe it, and then it becomes another reified notion, an impediment to the very freedom and honesty and true morality we are advocating for others and claiming we live by ourselves.

You can just feel how dangerous that kind of thinking is, especially if we are unaware of it, because that is just what everybody feels, no matter what side of an issue they fall on. “I am right, and they are wrong.” “I know what is right, and they don’t.” “What is wrong with them?” Then we start attributing motive.

So, are you right when you think you are right? Are they wrong when you say they are wrong? As my Zen teacher, Soen Sa Nim, used to say, “Open your mouth and you’re wrong.” And yet, you, we, all of us, have to open our mouths. And sometimes we do have to act, even in the face of complexity and uncertainty, for complexity and uncertainty are part and parcel of the nature of reality itself.

What can we do? That koan is a worthy meditative practice, and it is a worthy political practice. Can we stay with the not knowing and wake up to something new and daring and imaginative and healing beyond the confines of reactive, unexamined, and highly conditioned thought processes and the grip of afflictive emotions, particularly fear? Can we find ways to embody goodness, a true inner and outer strength, especially in moments of crisis and challenge, and at the same time drop the righteousness, which is both corrosive and corrupting?

Just thinking about things in some ways can trigger self-righteous indignation. Thinking about the same things in other ways opens the way to imagination and creativity, to openheartedness, to mindful and heartful action.

But the self is its own construct, and even if the facts are clear, what we do about a particular situation that triggers self-righteousness in us often is not. “We” can be as ignorant in our indignation as “they” are in their “nefarious machinations,” whoever they are, and whoever we are. Don’t you already know this in your heart of hearts?

Perhaps something better and wiser is required, more relational, a less dualistic way of seeing, one that does not reify the sense of “us” versus “them,” or its kissing cousin, “good” versus “evil,” quite so fast, or that sees even that and can hold it gently in awareness, if the impulse in us is so strong that it arises on its own with a lot of emotion despite our knowing better.

Then maybe, just maybe, we might find ways not to be torn apart by conflict in our own thinking and feeling and to act wisely and bravely to move things in a direction of healing, of moving from dis-ease and imbalance to greater ease and balance and harmony. In a word, a politics of wisdom and compassion, nurtured through mindfulness and lovingkindness. It would mean a true caring for, protecting, and honoring of the body politic, a commitment to ask the most of it and of ourselves rather than the least, and to trust that clear seeing is the road to true security and to long-term harmony and balance.

From Mindfulness for All: The Wisdom to Transform the World, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2019 by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is professor of medicine emeritus and the founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction).

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