right and wrong

The Myth of Right and Wrong  —  The Myths Series

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The Myths Series


The Myth of Right and Wrong–there are always excep­tions to each “rule,” and mak­ing a list isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly helpful

For more on this top­ic, check out:

My first and most pop­u­lar book,

This End­less Moment.

Learn to live a full and sat­is­fy­ing life. 


I suspect that, when most people say, “That’s wrong!” they mean “I wouldn’t do that!”  —  that they’d be scared to do…whatever.

The rea­son for this is how we learn “right” from “wrong.”

Being a child means hav­ing an almost instant feed­back loop, oth­er­wise known as parents. 

  • When we were kids, doing “wrong” got us pun­ished, and doing “right” got us some form of reward. 
  • As adults, we still sor­ta expect this kind of feed­back, even if we dread it. In fact, many peo­ple get mar­ried hop­ing to be par­ent­ed, or to par­ent, their spouses. 

And it’s quite funny how the focus of such folk is always external  —  on their partner  —  as opposed to self-reflective. 

But back, briefly, to parenting. 

The fun­ny thing is, the vast major­i­ty of things declared by our par­ents and tribes to be “right” or “wrong” are sim­ply their per­son­al pref­er­ences.

For exam­ple, one woman I worked with decades ago grew up in a one-par­ent house­hold. Her dad left when she was a kid. Her mom nev­er got over his leav­ing her. On a reg­u­lar basis, mom would say, “Men can’t be trust­ed. Every man will hurt and aban­don you.” 

Guess what my client believed? This mom-mantra became, for her, a “rule.” A “truth.” And indeed, every man she picked cheat­ed on her, and then left her. She fer­vent­ly believed that “this was the way it is,” and because of this, she cre­at­ed sit­u­a­tions and cir­cum­stances that her men would do what she feared (expect­ed.)

Thing is, there’s no “right” or “wrong” about it. 

Addi­tion­al­ly, there’s the whole issue (dis­cussed at length in Ben Wong & Jock McK­een’s The NEW Man­u­al for Life) of the repres­sion of the authen­tic self that is a part of all human conditioning. 

Babies come into the world as a bun­dle of poten­tial­i­ty. Each child is born with an authen­tic self  —  a unique set of ways of being and doing, and of all of that “stuff” will come under pressure. 

This authen­tic self, this com­plete self, will be sliced and diced by what I call in my book This End­less Moment the T&C (our tribes and cul­ture.) Parts of us (our skills, char­ac­ter­is­tics, and char­ac­ters) will be approved of, and oth­er parts will be rejected. 

The parts that are rejected go background, and agitate and mess with us from what Jung called The Shadow. 

An acquain­tance of ours remem­bers hav­ing a deeply artis­tic bent when she was a kid. Her par­ents were in the sci­ences, and, using all kinds of manip­u­la­tions, kept rein­forc­ing the idea that “In our fam­i­ly, we don’t make art, we donate to the arts” and “Paint­ing is not a career.” 

When she was around the age 8 they took all of her art sup­plies away, and refused to buy her more. She stopped all forms of paint­ing and art. They upped the ante and made art “wrong,” and had the pow­er to enforce their belief. 

Her artist final­ly went background. 

Mom and dad con­tin­ued to stress the sci­ences as the only “right” career. In her teens, she rebelled, but in a typ­i­cal­ly teen way. She did­n’t go back and exam­ine her par­ents’ assump­tions  —  she had bought into their belief sys­tem, and declared, “I’m not an artist” and “Being an artist is bad.” What she did do was become sex­u­al­ly active at 14, and she dropped out of High School at 16, end­ing the whole “become a sci­en­tist” thing. 

She became a sec­re­tary. She fig­ured, “That’ll show them!”

Of course, she really only hurt herself, and totally missed what had been going on.

Ten years went by. Dur­ing that time she paint­ed three paint­ings. She hid them in the clos­et in her apart­ment. I saw one, one day  —  it was a depic­tion of three peo­ple in a very hot clinch. We start­ed talk­ing about art. 

Over time, her sto­ry came out. With much effort, she let go of the art / sci­ence, “bad” / “good” non­sense, fin­ished High School, and enrolled in a Uni­ver­si­ty Arts program.

But there’s more to the story.

T&C (often in the guise of parental lec­tures / dia­tribes) doesn’t stop pres­sur­ing for com­pli­ance when we become teens. All that changes is the “matu­ri­ty” of the topics. 

When my friend was a young teen, mom and dad start­ed crit­i­ciz­ing her appear­ance, clothes choic­es, and her devel­op­ing body. When puber­ty hit, her moth­er con­tin­u­al­ly stressed that sex was “bad,”  —  some­thing to be put up with and got­ten past. 

Both mes­sages “went in,” and changed her beliefs about herself:

  • In my opin­ion she was quite attrac­tive and well-pro­por­tioned. She need­ed to paint a self-por­trait for Art Class, and I shot a por­trait series for her. Love­ly pho­tos. Then I saw her sketch­es: she drew her­self as old, ugly and fat. Because she had learned to believe that her that her body was “wrong.”
  • Although sex­u­al­ly active since 14, she did­n’t enjoy sex. She called it, “Going through the motions.” Just as mom taught her.

Each of her beliefs  —  her “good and bad list”  —  come from her formative years  —  and it is so for all of us.

As we get old­er, we do change some of the items on our “good” / “bad” list, but the hard part is when I sug­gest that peo­ple do away with lists entire­ly.

The prob­lem with lists is that they let peo­ple off the hook. With a list,to default to, peo­ple no longer need to engage in moment-by-moment, issue by issue think­ing.

And that’s too bad, because all peo­ple, giv­en encour­age­ment (notice that word en-courage-ment) have the abil­i­ty to make eth­i­cal and behav­iour­al choic­es sit­u­a­tion­al­ly, and on the fly. 

Since we met, Dar­bel­la and I have been exper­i­ment­ing with a rad­i­cal idea. It’s sim­ple. If some­thing comes up and either of us want to attach a knee-jerk “right / wrong” label to it, we explore it. 

If some­thing scares us, we tend to do it. (see caveats, below.) And, if some­thing inter­ests us, we give it a shot. 

This means that we are bet­ter able to spot any “right / wrong rules” we might have. We then exam­ine the rule and see if it actu­al­ly makes sense. 

Besides, if we decide to do something despite our fear of it, will the sky fall in? 

Bet­ter, we think, to actu­al­ly find out through our own expe­ri­ence than to stop our­selves based upon some­one else’s opinion. 

Because in the main, the things we have the strongest reac­tion to tend to be the most embed­ded, and there­fore taught to us by T&C. T&C had an agen­da back then, and we for­get that at our per­il. They want­ed to cre­ate clones that fit in.

Which is not to say, and here’s the caveat, that I’m going to try Russ­ian roulette. I also have opt­ed out of bungee jump­ing. Not because some­one else told me to, but because my fear-lev­el is suf­fi­cient to not need to test these things. 

On the oth­er hand, dis­cov­er­ing and explor­ing the pieces of my authen­tic self  —  the parts of me that my par­ents taught me to put away, actu­al­ly lik­ing and using and train­ing my body  —  well, that’s a dif­fer­ent story.

Take a look at the things about your­self that you declare to be “bad.” Are they real­ly “bad,” or did they just fly in the face of what your tribe want­ed of you? Explore what you judge to be “wrong” about oth­ers. Same cri­te­ria. Is it “wrong,” or just dif­fer­ent? (This is espe­cial­ly true of cul­tur­al judge­ments, aka racism. Almost all of it is “just different.”)

And last­ly, look at those actions and acts you think might be fun  —  but you just know are “wrong!!!!” Why? What would it be like, with a clear heart and total hon­esty, to give one or two a chance? Then decide if you want to repeat the experience.

Because, speak­ing for me, I don’t want to be lying on my death-bed with a ton of regrets.

If it’s scary, char­gy, or new, just do it.


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