Righteousness: Guiding Light or Deadly Intoxicant?
Recently I got into an argument with a loved one. I felt I was due an apology. I pleaded my case, and did not get the response I was looking for. Suddenly, I was feeling a familiar sense of aggrandizement and entitlement. How dare this person defy me, when I was so clearly wronged, and my good principles and ethics were trodden on?
The argument, taking place on the way home from Minneapolis, ended in icy silence and entrenched positions. I was holding a judgment of righteous indignation. If you had asked me, I would have told you that God, or any reasonable person, would take my side. Powerful stuff, eh?
That night I suffered the worst case of nerve pain in my feet that I have ever had. I have an undiagnosed nerve disease that randomly causes stabbing pains in my feet. I can go for months symptom free, and then it will strike. Usually it is intense to the point of breathing through it and bearing with it until it passes. But this night it struck with a force so strong my body actually recoiled in convulsions, again and again. I remember thinking that this would not be good for my back. Sure enough, I have been dealing with back spasms ever since…nine days of debilitating pain and exhaustion. I feel alternately humbled, frustrated, depressed, angry (at God) and hopeless. I need to make a difference every day, and this painful experience has shrunk my world to just trying to get myself healed…it feels like the head of a pin is my world now.
Is there a connection between my righteousness and the pain I have experienced for well over a week? I am tempted to say ‘YES,’ because I have been examining my sense and behavior of righteousness for several months now, and I have become aware of the impact my righteousness has on not just me, but my community.
So what is this feeling that so many of us carry, this sense of righteousness? It’s been around for a long time. Webster defines righteousness as the quality of being morally right or justifiable. Wikipedia says righteousness is an important theological concept in western religions. It is an attribute that implies that a person’s actions are justified, and can have the connotation that the person has been “judged” or “reckoned” as leading a life that is pleasing to God.
Ah, so if my behavior is justified by, and pleasing to God, then whoever is on the other side of that is “wrong” or “sinful” or just plain “whacko”? ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, and God’s on my side.’ There, if ever there be a case for ego inflation, is the Mother of all egotistical positions.
Something is definitely askew with my (our) thinking around righteousness. If I need to justify my actions or position, this is a perfect indicator that I am not living from my heart, that I am not in connection with the object of my justification [see Anatomy of Peace, Arbinger Inst.]. I find it hard to believe I’m quoting a devout Christian here, but in the words of Andrew Womack, there “…is confusion about how we become right in the sight of God. It is commonly thought that our actions are the determining factor in God’s judgment of our righteousness. That’s not true. There is a relationship between our actions and our right standing with God, but right relationship with God produces actions, not the other way around. That is to say, we are not made righteous by what we do.”
So true, or heartfelt, righteousness comes from us first being in right relationship. Then what follows in action can be righteous. My mistake and my downfall has been to judge my actions to be right as a way of justifying my opposition.
How seducing and intoxicating is this feeling of righteousness? My own experience has been one of towering ego, standing far above the ‘others’ who are not only “in the wrong,” but are, simply, “wrong”. I found this in an article by Roger Lockard, that sums it up nicely: …The sense of righteousness is endlessly versatile. It can become fuel for a rapacious crusade, or a comforting wrap into which we snuggle for affirmation and reassurance. This emotional fix is endlessly enticing, insidiously corrupting, and charged with such compelling authority that we can become willing to die—or kill—in its thrall. At this point you may conjure images of terrorists piloting planes into skyscrapers or blowing up buses—rabid fanatics bent on vengeance. Or the Timothy McVeighs and Theodore Kaczynskis: alienated, forlorn figures stewing grimly in righteous vitriol. As with addiction in general, people prefer to think of the problem as involving others—not themselves. But in the case of righteousness, such a belief is almost always mistaken. Most of us, whether we be timid or bold, liberal, conservative, or (especially) some version of radical, are prone to imbibing heady infusions of the stuff. Viewing ourselves as “good,” in fact we become grievously toxic, literally intoxicated. In this poisonous state of mind we are able to write off others—often literally billions of others—without hesitation or remorse, because they are “bad.” It’s on the news every day: people addicted to righteousness are wreaking havoc, at home and abroad. And as I view this madness, I feel myself swell up with—what? You guessed it—righteous indignation! As usual, addiction becomes a closed system, feeding on itself.
There are two paths of ‘righteousness’ I have described here. One is ‘grievously toxic’ and intoxicating by inflating our sense of self and rightness of action. The other path is one of humility and compassion, born of being in right relationship with one’s Higher Power, community, and humanity. Actions taken from this state of being in right relationship with all of creation—even if not in agreement with their behavior—is no longer “all about me”, but “All about Us”. You and I get to choose our ‘path of righteousness.’
One final note: having written this piece, my back spasms have eased considerably, at least 50% in the last hour and a half. Read into that what you will. For me, this has been catharsis.