When my friends got married, I loved throwing bachelor parties. Many of my friends were in the mental health profession. And many of these therapists did couples and family therapy. Inevitably, someone would ask: “What advice do you have for the bride and groom?” One of the best pieces of advice that I heard was simply this: “You can be right or you can be happy.”

When I counsel couples, we inevitably get into a discussion of what is right and wrong. Usually, at least one partner is concerned about being right in an argument. Without fail, one or both spouses will turn to me to be the arbiter of what is right and wrong in their relationship, confident that I will rule in their favor. As a family therapist, I almost always disengage from such a role. One reason is that discussions about being right get bogged down in a circular argument over what is right instead of discussing what works or what will make the couple happy.

This problem goes back to the first couple. Why was it that Adam and Eve were punished so severely for eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? One would think that understanding the difference between good and evil would be a good thing. Doesn’t our Creator want us to do good and avoid evil? So what is the problem with eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

The difficulty is that we interpret what is good and evil from the immediate perspective of what feels good or feels bad to us. For instance, let’s look at the story of the Zen farmer:

A farmer who has achieved his Zen enlightenment discovers a horse that has wandered onto his fields. His neighbor comes by, sees the horse and says: “Oh, you are so lucky. What a wonderful horse.” The Zen farmer replies: “Could be good, could be bad. I don’t know.” Soon afterward, the Zen farmer’s son tries to tame the horse, falls and breaks his leg. The neighbor visits and says: “I just heard about your son. I’m very sorry to hear about his bad luck.” The Zen farmer says: “Could be good, could be bad. I don’t know.” His neighbor walks away confused. A week later, war breaks out. The army comes through and conscripts all the able bodied young men. The Zen farmer’s son is rejected by the army because he has a broken leg. The Zen farmer’s neighbor comes by and says: “Oh, you are so lucky, you’re son doesn’t have to go to the army and fight.” The Zen farmer says: “Could be good, could be bad, I don’t know.”

The problem with eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that we are seduced into believing the limited perspective of our circumstances. Eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil intoxicates us with the narcissistic belief that we understand what is ultimately right or wrong.

Now, this is not to say that good and evil do not exist. My own estimation of good and evil is usually processed through my current physiological and emotional state. I see and hear and experience what feels good to me today. I won’t necessarily see good in what feels bad today, but might be good far into the future. So, that means that I have to rely on something outside of myself to wake me up when it doesn’t feel good to do good or avoid evil. And, I have to accept that I might not know what is coming in the future or that I don’t have all the facts to be able to judge the present.

The addiction to being right keeps individuals locked into their addictions and locked into the circular causality of their relationships. This addiction is more seductive and pernicious than the most powerful narcotics. The potential of the pure pleasure of being right whispers the promise that we can finally be vindicated and promotes the fantasy that we can be victorious over those who have hurt us. All too often I have seen alcoholics and drug addicts cling to their “Right to Drink” despite the damage it does to their health and relationships. Just as often, I see individuals (and I fall prey to this myself) seduced by the possibility of being right instead of the desire to make themselves and their partner happy. As a result, winning the argument of being right ultimately turns into the worst sort of losing.

I sometimes wonder why we have never seen a “Self-Righteousness Anonymous.” The answer is simple. We are still too busy eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to attend the meetings.

For more information, see www.jacobspilman.com.

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