It’s been more than twenty years now since I heard Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie deliver a sermon at the Arlington Street Church in Boston titled ‘Would You Rather Be Happy or Be Right?’ The distinctions she laid out on that sunny Sunday morning have stayed with me ever since. Given Reverend Crawford Harvie’s generous perspective, and the Unitarian-Universalist penchant for relativism, she did not make a definitive claim in favor of one perspective over another. However, by questioning the absolutism inherent in the word ‘right,’ she leaned heavy in the direction of happiness.
At that time I was impressed, and confounded, by the duality between being happy and being right. They are not opposites. They do not reside in realms of mutual exclusivity. There’s not even any consistent correlation between them. I also realized that my own ideas of ‘right’ and ‘happy’ were more intertwined than Reverend Harvie Crawford described. Though I’d never thought about it before, I really can’t be happy, unless I feel I’m doing right.
I must digress to state that ‘right’ and ‘righteous’ are not the same thing. People who are righteous think they know the correct way to be, and they inflict it on others. People who strive to be right seek to be true to themselves. A few things in this world are universally ‘right,’ like the Golden Rule. But for many of us, there are myriad ideas and actions that are individually right for us every day—what color sweater to wear, whether to hold the door for the person behind us, eat meat, apply for that new job, lobby our representatives, partake in civil disobedience. In the main, when we do what we think is right, we will also be happy.
But over the past year, the confluence between doing what I think is right, and deriving happiness from it, has shrunk. Calling out our nation’s political discord, our irrefutable racism, and individual actions that thwart public health guidance, have caused a few longtime friends to turn away. I’ve never unfriended anyone, and can’t imagine what circumstances would compel me to cease the possibility of connection. But it only takes one side to shut down communication. I do not know whether or when we will speak again.
The connection between being happy and being right has never been so difficult. Deciding when and if to call out folks behaving badly in the realm of politics, race, or pandemic has shifted as I learned the uselessness—on both sides—of confrontation. Harping on other people doesn’t change their behavior or bring me happiness, so I’ve simply learned to walk in ever-wider circles of avoidance.
I do not solicit people’s opinions, racist memes, or travel stories. People just deliver them. And then seem wounded when I counter their facts, or fail to laugh at their joke, or remind them that crossing state lines to visit their eighty-year-old mother violated guidelines. People are continually dumbfounded for being called out—however gently—for stuff they know is wrong.
I wonder if perhaps this pandemic year marks the beginning of my shrinking relationship with this world. I’ve grown more patient, but less tolerant of baloney, even as the sheer volume of baloney we wallow in these days seems to expand logarithmically. I accept that some longtime friends may slip away as I continue to evolve. Because I am convinced that, ultimately, I must say and do what I think is right. Otherwise, I have no chance for happiness.