Being Right vs. Being Righteous

Wait a minute, what are you talking about? Say again? Aren’t they the same thing? Well, no, they are not. While both words are adjectives, being right is a factual statement that can be confirmed, whereas being righteous is a way of behaving that usually induces fear or eye rolling from whomever is subjected to the righteous treatment—whether or not the person is correct! Are you still with me?

It is a rare event when a person feels righteous about something they know they are wrong about, so the converse of this is that righteousness and believing you’re right go together. Alas, the typical expression of righteousness is usually articulated with a vexed tone. “He should pick up his socks every night!”Anybody who supports that candidate is a swine.” “The very idea that she would require me to stay late to work while leaving early herself is outrageous.” Each of these statements comes from a speaker who may (or may not) be right, but is most definitely righteously indignant when making themselves heard.

Nobody likes being on the receiving end of righteous indignation. Not you, not me, and not the poor schmo who had the misfortune of standing in line ahead of you. The reason I am writing about this is to draw attention to the fact that, ideally, while we may believe ourselves to be correct 100% of the time, contrary to the passionate examples we see from our religious or political leaders, it’s rarely a smart move to be righteous in our communications with others. It’s difficult to keep this is mind when we know we’re so clearly right and the other person is so clearly wrong, but that’s what I am asking you to consider.

I’ll go a step further and suggest that you strive to moderate not only your verbal expressions but also how you think about these very same conflicts. Courtesy of manner is a good first step, but the real trick lies in disciplining our thoughts and our philosophy such that we aren’t marching down the street silently condemning everyone crossing our path as an utter fool or moral reprobate—that is, except for the most obvious denizens of Washington DC (ha ha, just a joke).

Let me provide an example closer to home: say you’re planning a family gathering for the holidays. You’re making plans and delegating responsibility to various relatives, only you already can’t stand Cousin Sal and when she and her feral brood appear, she’s done precisely what you asked her not to do. Yes, she brought three side dishes, but she already knows nobody else at the table will eat beets or asparagus and this is what she brought, along with her incredibly popular potatoes. So you bang around in the kitchen, fuming about what an obtuse ass she is which only serves as further evidence as to the sorry state of the rest of her existence: this, my friends, is an example of righteous indignation. She senses your grave displeasure and you have created a black cloud over your very own head! What does this achieve? You may have the satisfaction of seeing the beets and asparagus sitting cold and uneaten in their dish, and perhaps Cousin Sal will repeat this behavior again next year, but she certainly isn’t going to be motivated to change her ways if she takes a lead from your attitude, is she?

What if, instead, you see Sal arrive with yet another round of unwanted veggies to accompany her scrumptious potatoes and you discipline your thoughts sufficiently to express gratitude for the parts you truly appreciate? Holding yourself back from the remainder of your usual narrative may do wonders for how you feel about the entire celebration! This is the sort of disciplining of our thoughts and attitudes that can help curb those instincts to let others know just how right we are.

Does this make sense? Maybe you don’t need such reminders, but I surely do. It’s temptingly easy to confuse doing things our way with criticizing others for doing it another. Being right and being righteous are two very different beasts.


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One Response to “Being Right vs. Being Righteous”

  1. Peter Schmidt Says:

    Very well put – I think it’s also important to distinguish that having the right to do something is also different than being righteous in doing something. For example:
    Let’s say there’s a stove that’s turned on. Then, for whatever reason, you decide to put your hand on it. You have the right to complain about how painful it is. Though inadvisable, you had the right to touch it. You are not, however, righteous in complaining about the stove being hot. You wouldn’t be righteous in saying the stove shouldn’t be hot. It isn’t the stove’s fault it is hot – it was functioning as intended, and you decided to challenge it.

    I find this is a common issue in a lot of political debates, both conservative and liberal. Too often do people only focus on their immediate rights but not the big picture.

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