That surge of thinking you are right is a power

By Joseph Cramer, MD

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 27 2011 4:01 p.m. MST

It feels good to be right. I mean it feels really good to be right. Part of that sensation is knowing how bad it feels to be wrong. The problem with feeling right is it does not make us right.

Being masters of slaves probably felt right to plantation owners. It didn’t to the slaves. Killing in the name of God may seem right if one is wrong, but God doesn’t lend his trademark out to just anyone. One has to wonder how he feels.

A sun circling a stationary earth feels right. A king feels good sitting on a gold throne even with starving peasants. Racial purity felt good to the Nazis in Germany, but racial separation felt good to us as we fought them. Feelings of superiority come in degrees.

The feeling we get when we think we are right is just that, a feeling. I am not touching on personal revelation. There is a difference. But for humans, that surge of thinking you are right is a power with molecular roots.

It’s tricky. For the insecure, being right is essential to chemically fill in emotional gaps. That is why self-righteousness is so seductive. When one is weak, the sensation of right makes one feel strong. There is a neuronal spark of supremacy. Power eventually supplants the feeling of right.

But feeling right is not the same as being right.

So the challenge is how does an individual or practitioners of some social custom or even a whole political movement that feels right discover they are wrong? How does it happen if questioning is viewed as a weakness? How does not only a slave owner free his slaves, but also ask them for forgiveness?

The first critical step is to understand, even if it is only a sliver that one may be wrong.

Oliver Cromwell, who after overthrowing the British monarchy ruled royally as the lord protector, thought he was right. Still, he beseeched others, “Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

There is an emotional price to this wondering. It requires humility. It necessitates admitting human frailties. It’s work. It hurts. However, we don’t discover truth if we always assume we are right.

One more explanation why we may erroneously think we are always right is we surround ourselves with like kind. It makes evolutionary sense to mingle with your own clan. It’s safer amongst everything familiar.

It is also an illusion. It is like being inside a moving car at a steady speed and direction. Only by looking outside do we appreciate the scenery flashing by. To be right and not just feel right, one has to look outside their world.

For the slaveholder to be right, he needs to suffer the lashes. For politicians to be right, it is essential to collaborate with their archrivals. For the growing divide of wealth in America to shrink, the rich must feel what it means to be poor.

With all the human suffering that accompanies societal ills, there is a deep need for us to be right as a nation. One of the serious consequences of a growing divide in America is that there is also growing isolation of shared experiences. No one is looking out his or her window.

The powerful hang out with the powerful; the rich associate with the rich; and the two political parties don’t play together. There is a political agoraphobia or fear of openness. We need to be open to the chance we are mistaken.

How do we know our social habits or political convictions are right?

We are wrong if what we believe is centered on us. It is not about us. If it isn’t about others, we are wrong no matter how right it feels.

We ought to be suspicious of the biological responses of believing we are right. This country needs to be right, not just feel right.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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