Rightness, it seems to me, is often an interpersonal handicap. It does nothing to facilitate getting along. And when you are right, I mean, it’s really hard not to play that card — the I-am-right card. Our society tells us being right is some kind of key to things. But in reality, it’s not. Insistence on even the mere recognition of rightness is almost always problematic at best.
For examples, we can turn to my mother, and her rules. She was raised on a dairy farm by parents who survived The Great Depression. They did it by having a strict code, a code of conservative stoic rule-abiding kindness. Flamboyance of any kind, whether it involved dirt or waste or arrogance or fun, if it passed over into flamboyance, excess, it was strictly prohibited. Appearances, attention to province, duty and loyalty, these were the ultimate measures of conduct. You did not, for example, put dirty eggs in the refrigerator, even if it turned out later that science proved washing the eggs shortened the life of their freshness. Shitty eggs in the fridge was just not done, and to violate this was a matter of moral character. I know this because my sister has been significantly frowned upon, seriously, by my mother, losing points and being marked down for laziness when she puts her chickens eggs directly into the icebox, without washing them first.
Never going to the grocery store hungry is another example of a rule of my mother’s, left hanging over, rigid and stiff, from the practicality of scarcer times. It helps you stick to the list and thus, to the budget and it keeps you from buying food that’s purely what you crave. So this is, I’ll admit of practical value. But on the other hand? Contrast a trip to the florescent-lit supermarket on a full stomach, with a trip to the farmer’s market at dawn, with only coffee or maybe even nothing in your stomach when you get there. First thing, you pop in to the bakery for a cardboard cup of something warm and a bear-claw or a steamy croissant. You juggle them in your hands and mouth as you start out with your list and everything, from the words on it, to the dirty fresh vegetables laid out all around you, is lush and scrumptious with sensual life. You still feel hungry as you make your first choices. The food and your satisfaction are joining as one from that moment. Every healthy decision you make about consumption for the next week begins then. You feel alive and full of agency and you might not be “right” but you are smiling. There is plenty of good stuff to be said about going to market hungry.
The third example of an overrated rightness in rule form is a little more vague and connected closest at my heart. Take poetry as this example — the frivolity of art. Poetry is not something my mom, or my grandparents would have found a worthy way to spend one’s time. You were allowed to be creative but it had to have an explicit, built-in purpose. Wood working or skits to teach your colleagues important principles, or crocheted mittens, or even ceramics if you painted the pieces of a Nativity for Christmas decorating. All those would be okay. But poetry or stories without a larger purpose, would pretty surely be considered frivolous in my family. Sharing them someplace as public as the internet is probably going to mean answering some pretty serious questions at some point. I mean, I think my mom kind of figures I do this, but because she loves me, she doesn’t want to know. She’s afraid of how she’ll feel about me afterward. So yeah. I’ve got all kinds of ambivalence about being a writer, a poet. Especially when it comes to the cross-section of being a writer and being right, and/or wrong. Whichever. I’m squeamish about it.
But here’s the thing. I was able to use all of this: the confusion of rightness and my experiences of it, the pull of it, it’s provocative desire-inducing nature, and what I believe about its ultimate futility. I used all of that at work yesterday morning. I used it for good, to help a student who came to the reference desk at the library. And to top it off, I also used poetry.
So the student was trying to write a speech, or well, he said he already wrote the speech and he was trying to write the outline which he has to turn in tomorrow. He was talking a mile a minute, even faster than me. He was explaining that he was anxious and he had a lot of good ideas and he was really doing well in speech class but the outline was giving him a lot of trouble and he didn’t do that well on it and he knows what he wants to say and he’s really creative and he has a lot of ideas and he’s engaging as a speaker but he really just wants to get more effective and he knows he’s smart enough and he’s getting really close to getting this whole speech class right and getting an “A” not that it is the grade that matters, it’s just that he wants to be a better communicator a more effective communicator and he has all his facts and he has ADD and also he has all his sources but he’s just all over the place when he starts delivering the speech and he has talked to two tutors and the writing center and the school counselor and everyone said he needed to not make it too complicated and he just really thinks a librarian might be who he needs to talk to.
So, could I help him with his outline for his informative speech about eggs.
I said yes and mostly I listened and he talked some more. For about a half an hour. My words would be like a hand, reaching out and grabbing his ideas and swinging him around into an orbital arc rather than letting him float out to entropy-land. I didn’t say much and I kept listening. Not just with my ears but with my whole self. First he was worried about being right, and everything in me was simultaneously empathizing with this, based on my own recent experiences, and also recognizing that concern for being right was irrelevant and getting in his way. It wasn’t helping him - not to be more right or to accomplish anything. So I knew enough to steer us both away from that temptation.
And then, after about thirty minutes I suddenly saw that he was a visual artist, it was there in the paint under his nails and the glue on his thumb all along. And then the metaphor, the poetry, came to me and before I had time to feel right or proud of it, I was sharing it with him.
"Okay." I said, sort of forcefully. "Imagine you are building a mosaic. This informative speech about eggs is your mosaic. You are an expert mosaic material shopper. You are fantastic at going out and thinking of ideas and facts you want to include in your egg-speech mosaic. You are great at that. That’s what you’ve been doing. Shopping. You’ve got a huge cart and you’ve thrown all these facts about eggs in there and it’s a jumble. In the cart."
He was nodding and grinning. All the creases I was beginning to fear were permanent anxiety scars in his forehead suddenly disappeared.
I went on, then. “Now, you are in the studio with this cart of ideas, these raw materials. That is not a speech. It is not a finished mosaic. You need to organize and sort the stuff and then put it together to look like something. The outline is the way you will sort it, it is the groups you will sort the facts into to make it into a coherent speech mosaic.”
He actually snapped his fingers at me. Swung his hand from his shoulder and snapped his hand in at the elbow with an accompanying finger-snap. And he grinned again. Very wide.
He said, “That’s it! Now! Now I get it. The outline is just a tool to help me sort it!”
And I said “Yeah.” And he thanked me for almost ten more minutes while he gathered up his papers. Then he went over to a table and wrote an outline. A fine outline. I know because he showed it to me before he left.
I was really glad, then. I was glad I know that being right isn’t the most important thing in most situations. I was glad that I am a “poet” and speak metaphor. And I was glad that my creative efforts were useful, because it would make my mom and my grandparents happy. Even if they don’t know that we are, all of us, alright.