Do You Want to Solve the Problem or Do You Want to Be Right ?

Often when I look at politics, and in particular the way people argue about political matters on social media or in YouTube videos and suchlike, I think, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to solve the problem?”

The folks I’m looking at are usually deeply concerned with some issue — like the rights of marginalized people, or the gun debate, or racism, or abortion, or economic inequality, the list could go on endlessly. In most cases, it’s clear that they really care about this stuff passionately. But a lot of the time it appears to me that they are far more interested in being right than in solving the problem.

Let me put that a different way. It seems to me that we are often more interested in being right than in solving the problem. I have watched myself do this many, many times, so I do not exclude myself here. I am not taking the position that I am beyond this. Not at all. It’s an issue that all human beings have. It’s not a left wing issue or a right wing issue.

Being right is only the first step in solving any given problem. And being right is never a static thing. Any conclusion you come to about anything is temporary at best. And your conclusions are always incomplete. As George Harrison said, “Right is only half of what’s wrong.” Even when you’re right, you’re only ever partially right. There’s always some aspect of the problem that you’re misunderstanding because complete understanding is impossible.

Sometimes it feels good to tell some asshole that you think he’s an asshole. But will that lead to a solution to the problem you’re trying to fix? In my own experience it usually doesn’t. In fact, it almost always just makes the problem worse. Most people become defensive when they are insulted. The problem under discussion fades away and is replaced by the problem of trying to defend yourself against the insult.

One of the weird quirks of the human ego is, even if you know you’re wrong, if someone insults you or belittles you, you’re very likely to hold even more tightly to your position. As I said, you’re never 100% right, which means you’re never 100% wrong either. So, when we’re insulted, we’ll try to shore up our own position. Even if we might have been on the verge of seeing our own the wrongness, being insulted will derail that process and send us into trying to find ways to bolster a position we might have been very close to abandoning. I do this. You do it too.

Yet if we feel very passionately about solving some problem, and if we are serious about finding a viable solution that works in the real world, we might have to let go of being right.

That’s hard to do. It’s as hard for me as for anyone else. The ability to do this doesn’t seem to come naturally. It takes work to develop, and it takes vigilance to maintain. I fail at it a lot.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard to focus on solving problems rather than on maintaining the ego. I suspect it’s something to do with the survival instinct.

Our brains evolved to help us survive in the wild, not to help us make coherent arguments about policy issues. It may be that we unconsciously see any challenge to the ego as equivalent to a threat to our lives and automatically move to defend ourselves against it. A million years ago, we were defending ourselves with a spear against a triceratops trying to eat us. Now we defend ourselves with Facebook posts against the bigots and snowflakes who want to eat our rights. Or something like that.

My theories about the origin of this stuff are, no doubt, wrong. But they’re probably a little bit right too.

In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Dogen is quoted as instructing his students, “While I was staying at Kenninji temple, many people asked about the Dharma. Among them, there were some strange opinions or mistaken views. However, I kept this deep in my heart; I only talked about the virtue of the Dharma as it is, instead of criticizing the mistaken views of others. I avoided trouble in that way. A foolish person firmly attached to his own opinions always gets angry, saying that his virtuous predecessors have been slandered. The wise and sincere person realizes and reforms his own mistakes and those of his virtuous predecessors without having them pointed out by others, only if he understands the true meaning of the Buddha-Dharma. You should ponder this thoroughly.”

He also said, “When someone misunderstands what you know well, speaking ill of him is your own error.”

There’s some serious shit going on right now. I’m very concerned about the state of the world. It’s hard not to want to smack stupid people in the face sometimes — either verbally or physically. The fact that I sometimes want to slap someone is not, in itself, a big problem. It’s just how it is to be a human animal.

But humans, although we are animals just like chimps and wallabies and great horny toads, have a responsibility those other animals don’t. We’re very powerful creatures capable of massive acts of destruction. But we’re also capable of seeing the true nature of ourselves and of the world we are part of.

If we manage to survive this dangerous impasse we’re going through right now, the human race might be able to do wonders we can’t even imagine in our present state. It’s important that our species continues. So it’s important that we, as individuals, start being more concerned with solving problems than with being right.

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Speaking of solving problems, the you can still solve the problem of not having a Zen retreat to go to by registering for the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles Spring Retreat (April 21-23, 2017 at Mt Baldy Zen Center) !  

Led by Brad Warner, this three-day intensive retreat will focus primarily on the practice of zazen. Morning chanting services, work periods, and yoga (led by Nina Snow) will round out the daily activities. The program will also feature lectures by Brad, as well as the opportunity for dokusan (personal meetings).  Participants will be able to take advantage of this beautiful location for hiking during free periods.

Click for the registration form, practice schedules and more!

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is now available as an audiobook from as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You!

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September 8-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland

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