There is a hard spot in my heart for the self-righteous. They burn a calcified fibrotic lesion in my myocardium. They and their pretentious piety produce justifiable heartburn.
However, from personal experience I have learned a new variation of self-righteousness. It is the malady of “self-wrong.”
Self-wrong is being self-righteously dishonest about our self-righteousness. It is when two rights make a wrong.
My most recent instructor in this personal lesson of self-wrong was an unknown driver of a car waiting to get into my parking spot. My wife and I were trying to drive out of a parking lot at the same time my tutor was coming in. There was only passage for one car, and he would not back up to let me out.
I inched closer; he did not budge. I flashed my lights; he flashed his right back. It was a standoff. The two cars didn’t go anywhere but my upset did. All the knucklehead had to do was to back up. But, oh, no he was too self-righteous.
Being the cooler of the two of us, my wife rolled down her window and asked a passerby why the fellow didn’t move. His answer gave more light than my brights. The exit was to a one-way street. I was going the wrong way.
Perhaps you have your own examples of self-righteous dishonesty. It happens in falsely judging others. We see it in money and power settings; religion falsely applied houses practitioners of the art; unbelievers are equally susceptible. It is inevitable whenever people force-feed their egos. Self-wrongs are born in nurseries of self-doubt.
Dr. C. Terry Warner, in his powerful speech, “Honest, Simple, Solid and True,” said: “All self-seeking quests to make things better end up by making them worse.”
He added, “my quest continued the very preoccupation with myself I was trying to overcome. And it twisted my goal of being true into the goal of being true to me, and being true to me, for my sake, often came before the interests and needs of others.”
That is self-wrong.
This often happens because we compensate for our insecurities with the need to feel superior. We become argumentative over things that really don’t matter. Rightness becomes our mental crutch of choice. When we differ with others we correct them. We proclaim victory continuously right or not.
With one’s emotional frailty, there is frequent denial of our self-wrongs. Our insatiable appetite to be loftier than others is fueled by our impression that we are humble because of our private fears. We ask ourselves, “How can I be prideful or arrogant when I feel so inadequate?”
Transfusing our anemic confidence, we naively commit self-righteous self-wrongs.
We overachieve in retaliatory reactions to cover our perceived shortcomings. Antagonistic to rivals, or even worse, we ignore those around us because we don’t have the time or interest in anyone beside ourselves. Sadly, in our self-wrong wake we leave many who are slighted or who become hostile to protect themselves from our arrogance. We struggle ever harder to gain others’ acceptance, all the while repelling them with our self-absorption.
The problem is we can never be good enough, smart enough, rich enough, or handsome enough. This self-defeating game won’t be won by self-improvement or self-promotion. Instead, it’s the paradox of gaining our lives by losing them. The life we must jettison is of our flawed self-image.
It takes work to right self-wrong. It starts with all the power of repentance and forgiveness. If repentance and empathy are not part of our lexicon, learn them. Paraphrasing Warner we need to take all affronts and “metabolize” them into love.
With love we respect the "rights” of others instead of demanding that we are right.
Appropriately chastised, I backed up, turned around to exit the correct way schooled in my lesson of self-wrong.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].