“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
I was raised in a home where a very common phrase was, “There’s a right way and a wrong way.”
The right way was the way my parents wanted things done. There were a great many rules surrounding the right way for nearly everything, in an attempt to ensure that we got it right, and, when the rules weren’t enough to enforce the rightness of our behavior, there were punishments, harsh words, and sometimes very public humiliation.
I’ve spent most of my adult life learning to deal with the fallout of this type of ingrained thinking, once important for emotional survival and physical safety, but no longer useful.
I work, now, to examine the precepts I live by, and whether they are helping me toward my goal of living a peaceful and conscious life. But there can still be some pretty huge blind spots in my view of things—places where I, myself, still expect those around me to conform to my concept of what is right.
Three years ago, when I began to practice the base principles of radical unschooling, I fell headlong into one of these traps. It caused a great deal of pain, and nearly cost me my oldest and dearest friend.
We altered the way in which we interacted with our children from an authoritarian style to a partnership model. And I decided I would be a missionary for every other family who showed a glimmer of dissension (as all families, even mine, do, sometimes).
I had found a piece that was missing from the puzzle of my own life, and I was awed by the rapid and wonderful changes I saw within my family once I placed it.
I hadn’t yet learned that zeal and epiphanies in our lives can also be pitfalls; that not everyone will benefit from what benefits us. I was certain my way was perfect and even necessary—for everyone.
It can be easy to believe, when we find the answer to our life’s dilemmas, that they will solve everyone else’s problems, too—that we have found the one and only “right way.”
We may come from a place of positive intent, but we are no less invading another’s life or suggesting that they might not find their way, without us. We do not trust them to find their own answers, and that awareness can sting with unintended fierceness.
I believe now that these deeply rooted judgmental places may be within all of us who grew up judged, and dependent on the verdict of that judgment for safety or survival.
What once helped us to survive the harsher places in our own childhoods can become a heavy and cumbersome burden, once we are grown.
It can hinder our relationships and our ability to create or maintain close connections, because, in insisting that we know what is right, we are also saying that the other is wrong.
I’ve never believed the phrase “the ends justify the means.”
It seems so unfeeling of the harm, perhaps irreparable, that can be done to other beings, and to our relationships with those beings. And yet, I inflicted just this type of behavior on my dear friend, as though her life, and her ideas of right, must echo my own, else she would be forever wrong in my eyes.
I realize, now, that I was being invasive; I was thrusting myself and my brand-new “right way” upon another who had not asked for my judgment.
I didn’t stop to think, at the time, that my goals left no room for her to learn and grow at her own pace, in her own way, and for her own reasons.
I didn’t consider that my insistence upon my own version of the right way might bring her more hurt than healing; nor that my right way, which works such magic in our lives, might be absolutely wrong for her and her family—and that even if it was right, only they could judge that.
Now, I’ve learned (I hope, for the last time), that I can’t make others believe or live as I do; that I might cause irreparable harm to relationships when I react to their choices as though I had the “one true path.”
My friend and I needed to step away from each other’s lives in order to heal the damage I had done with my insistence and certainty about the right way and the wrong way. This freed her to find her own way, like mine in some aspects, and very unlike in others, but not ever mine to judge.
I have come to understand that she would not have had this certainty without making the journey she was called to make, with the obstacles and vistas she encountered along the way.
She always had the strength to make it; she was making it, in her own fashion, even while I was so forcefully urging her toward my right path. The true problem was not with her, but with my inability to see that.
Each of us makes decisions based on personality, beliefs, values, circumstances, ability, and many other factors that are diverse and variable.
None of us can see clearly enough into the life of another to see all the hows and whys of their living.
Any time I find myself thinking that I can, it has become a warning beacon alerting me to ingrained and unwanted attitudes.
Maybe the true value of these moments is in giving us yet another chance to ferret out those ingrained, black-and-white patterns so that we can see each other as-is, and to give others the space to determine for themselves their course in those nebulous areas that are neither right or wrong.
Each time I remember to do this, I find that my own life opens up with possibilities I might have considered wrong, and so dismissed without even noticing them. My mind opens also to the reality that there are as many right ways as there are people and circumstances.
Letting go of judgments about right and wrong helps my relationship with my friend and others with whom I do not always agree; and it helps me to keep my awareness framed in possibilities rather than limitations.
So, these days, whether I agree with your way or not, I acknowledge that it is your way, and not mine.
I will tend to making the choices and choosing the path that leads my way; you may have yours, and, perhaps, we will meet at some point along the journey, greet each other, and share the way for a while.
When our paths diverge again, I will bid you well for the portions of the journey we cannot share.
Photo by Damian Gadal
Shan Jeniah Burton lives in upstate New York with her husband, 10-year-old son, Jeremiah; and 7-year old daughter, Annalise. Writing is the thread that weaves through all the other parts of her life. She blogs regularly about unschooling at The Unfettered Life and on writing at "shanjeniah.”
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