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How Do We Know What's Right?

by Wayne Swanson

We all have a reliable indicator that alerts us when something is wrong — we FEEL it. These sensations of “wrongness”, more often than not, are easily correctable (or dismissible): “There's a rock in my shoe!”, or, “It's too early to get up.” Sometimes, though, we have attention-getting feelings that are more problematic. From “My back hurts!” to “I'm a nervous wreck before public speaking”, everyone has ongoing problems or vivid recollections of problems in their past. We know what's wrong. The wake-up sensations and emotions we experience at these times are all too real and powerful, and the attention they demand will not be denied.

But what about when something is “right”. Do we know when things are “right,” and how do we experience “rightness”?  At a recent LearningMethods workshop with David Gorman, I had an opportunity to investigate a situation in my life that I thought I had effectively solved — but was it the “right” answer?  It wasn't even a significant problem in the larger, more troublesome sense of the word, and yet there was something bothersome about my solution — something that was still not “right”.

In order to understand my deliberations, a little background is required.

The story includes my stepdaughter Ivy, who is a college student still living with me in the family home, and her boyfriend Shaun. They are both in their early twenties and have been dating for approximately four years. Two years ago, Shaun was thinking of getting a different apartment when his lease was up, and there was talk of the two of them getting a place together. It was not my upbringing nor is it my policy to direct the lives of adult children, yet, I felt Ivy's studies would be better served from her home environment, and I was also concerned about Shaun.

Since high school, Shaun had been on his own and working full time. He really wanted to further his education, but with no close family for guidance and support he had been unable to put together a plan to do so. Efforts by Ivy and me to help him had not been sufficient to get him enrolled, but when it looked like the two of them were about to take a path of more responsibilities and commitments (away from education), I came up with a plan of my own. I offered that Shaun could live with us for free if he went to school. It was just enough incentive to get the whole thing going. Shaun moved in with us in the fall, reduced his work to part-time, and started a 12-month computer certification program.

Shaun graduated last October with honors. It's mostly a happy story but in a year's time, of course, things change. Entry level job opportunities are not what they were when he applied to school, and until the economy changes or he educates himself further, Shaun is financially better off with his union grocery job which offers seniority pay and good benefits. He is back to full time work (and contributing monetarily to the household) but he has no specific plans regarding his career, more schooling, or a new flat.

Last summer, change came at a personal level when Ivy and Shaun stopped being a couple. At the time, it appeared to be a separation to gain perspective and individual clarity on their relationship. The separation is amicable, but half-a-year later they have no plan or process to get back together.

Here is where my problem begins. It looks to me like their lives have bogged down in a status quo that is unlikely to change from within (they will not make decisions to plan their own lives) but will only be changed from without (circumstances will force a change). This predicament is not that uncommon to human experience, but I care about these kids and I know something about the personalities involved. They are not moving on when they should be moving on.

Good opening for a LearningMethods moment, don't you think!  Why “should” they move on?  What's “moving on”?  If they're not moving on, whose problem is it?  Is it a problem for them?  Who has the information?  How can I get it?

I wondered how they perceived the state of things. Discrete inquiry revealed that they were independently fine with the living situation and they were both taking life just one-day-at-a-time. They, apparently, were not having a problem. As for me, it was always clear to me that my problem was not with their circumstances and the way they were (or were not) dealing with them. I am quite willing to let them live their own lives. So what was I up to?

My problem, as it came to me, was twofold: Firstly, the “idea” of their circumstance wouldn't leave me alone — I found myself thinking about it often and extrapolating possible outcomes (good and bad) if the situation were to continue. It bothered me (I had a clear sensory wake-up) that I was endlessly deliberating about it. Secondly, I had a desire that was linked to my personal values, understandings and beliefs about this arrangement. I wanted to discuss it with them directly — head on.

The second aspect of my problem seemed like a perfect solution to resolve the first part — talk to them and be done with it!  I am usually quite willing to be a Significant Elder, but I was having trouble clarifying my understandings and beliefs. I could talk to them, but what was it that I really wanted to say?  I definitely had some personal value judgments. It was easy to rattle around in the “idea” of their situation and dredge up things that “could” happen or “should” be. (And I don't mean to trivialize these possible futures because people do get caught up in past relationships that decades later they still haven't let go — or they crystallize a single failure into a permanent judgment — or they get lazy and stuck in the ills they know.) But what was true and specific to this particular circumstance that wouldn't leave me be?  Why, specifically, did “I” care?

I decided to look at all the elements ruminating in the “idea” of our living arrangement to see what I could uncover:


From the very beginning it was clear to everyone that if Shaun living in the house was not working for Ivy, I was totally behind her and would expedite a change. But Ivy seemed okay with things.


It must be no big surprise that Shaun has habits and activities some of which I like and others I could live without. But on balance, I find him a respectful person and generally easy to live with.


Shaun takes up some spaces that I might use if he weren't here (he has his own room), but again, this is not an important issue for me


Taken collectively, even, the small inconveniences just mentioned hold no importance for me.


I believe that if Shaun and Ivy were still a couple or if he was continuing his education, I would not have been experiencing anything but love and support.

No problem so far — what's left?


I was concerned that neither of them was sufficiently aware of and engaged with their own feelings to make a decision about a very emotional aspect of their lives (face an uncomfortable realization that the relationship was over — at least for now).


And, stuck in a limbo of comfortable familiarity, they would not seek out new lives or be free and open to new possibilities coming in.

At this stage in my understanding, I was stuck in the question “Why do 'I' care?” I noticed that while I was slogging around in the IDEA that there was something inherently wrong or potentially unconstructive about the living situation, I had plenty of justification (in a framework of more ideas) for the thoughts and attitudes that supported that view. Interestingly, though, when I imagined a REAL conversation with Shaun and Ivy — when I tried to think of what it was that I might actually say to them — I had an even clearer problem detector response than I had experienced before. MY HEART CLOSED!  As long as I was thinking of the “idea” within its own construct, it was rational and sensible and my heart felt open and soft, but when I thought of actually talking to them from this premise, my heart felt hardened and closed.

I feel it necessary to say something about my description. I am using words as accurately as I can for my own experience, and at a very simple level it is sufficient to explain that “open and soft heart” translates very easily to “free and open,” while “closed and hard heart” is a sensory “alert to wrongness” (or at least, “not okayness”).

Again: the “idea” within its own framework was rational and sensible; and to the degree that I was convinced in that construct, my heart remained open. When I imagined acting from that premise, however, my heart felt closed. I had two moments with fundamental similarities but very different responses. What was different?  I decided to compare the two.

Even though having the idea and acting on it are connected and organized around the same issue (and my intention) they are separate events. The first activity is my thinking about the “idea” (the living situation with my judgments and understandings about it, subject to further information); and the second activity is my imagining a conversation that would express these thoughts to Shaun and Ivy. Imagining the conversation made me uncomfortable. I had the feeling that I just couldn't do it.

Why couldn't I?  It became clear to me as I compared the two experiences that there was an additional belief or personal value present in the proposed conversation that was not active when I was analyzing their living arrangement. Which was: in order for me to present my thoughts and understandings to them, I would have to believe that it was somehow my business to project my analysis (and judgments) on two independent adults. More to the point, I would need to deem it appropriate to hand them MY thinking about what THEY were up to.

Bingo!  I don't believe it's appropriate. When Ivy was a child, I was perfectly ready to create and control environments for her that were consistent with my values, judgments and experience. As she grew older, however, these dynamics and decisions moved incrementally to her. I believe adults are on their own: they can ask for help; I can offer help; but I will not impose help (which includes my unsolicited judgments of their activities.

I now understood that the proposed conversation with Shaun and Ivy, as I was envisioning it, was only available from an identity (constructs and beliefs) that I could not maintain with honesty — it was in conflict with my other values. So here I was with a perfectly serviceable and good “idea” and nowhere to take it. And, I was still left with my problem.

From this point, I continued to grapple with the issue by investigating statements I could say that would not violate my personal values (or close my heart). I finally rested on a scenario where I could tell them the elements of my thoughts but without the analysis. I could review the historical story — how Shaun came to the house and under what circumstances and how those circumstances had changed — but stop at future projections. Additionally, I could relate some of the various thoughts and feelings I was experiencing while I steered clear of any conclusions or judgments. In other words, it would be just the facts; an “information only” conversation with no comment, response or action required from them. I thought I had it — it was honest and I could deliver it with an open heart. It seemed to solve the problem as I was currently defining it.

But was it “right”?  I wasn't experiencing a closed heart any longer but I wasn't rushing into the conversation either. Something wasn't “right”. Was there a better solution?  It has occurred to me that there can be more than one workable solution to a problem but it's a bit like searching for a misplaced glove - it's always found in the last place you look. Once a solution is in hand (like with the glove) there is little incentive to look further. Is that what was happening here?  Had I found a solution but this time it wasn't the “right” solution?  What is this “rightness” and is it like my glove, something I don't have until I find it?

I decided to bring up my problem (from the beginning) at a LearningMethods workshop with David. During the session, I was asked how I felt personally about Shaun living in the house. I brought up some of the points listed above and concurred that I didn't have a problem with it. Then David made the observation that sometimes situations are fine in the short term but when projected out to a longer time frame they can be considerably less desirable. In other words, I might be fine with Shaun living in the house now and maybe six months from now, but what if things are just the way they are today — a year from now; two years; five years; etc. I thought for a moment and realized that I had a different vision of my future than that.

Bingo!  Bingo!  That was what I wanted to hear from Shaun and Ivy — THEIR visions of THEIR futures. That was why my “information only” monologue didn't work for me. I wanted a dialogue to discuss their future plans and aspirations, and if they didn't have any, I wanted to challenge them to think about it. (Remember part two of my original statement of my problem; “I had a desire to discuss it with them directly - head on.”)

At the earliest convenience I talked to them individually. I went through the historical story and some of my concerns. I told them that living one-day-at-a-time can be valuable but one-day-at-a-time is precisely how the future gets here, whether we plan for it or not. I asked them how they felt about their lives remaining just as they are now — one year from now; five years from now.

My heart was open and the conversations went well. Ivy didn't feel judged or defensive, and the feedback I got from Shaun was that he was pleased. He felt that I cared about what happened to him and that I was looking out for his best interests.

It was good. I got it “right”!  At least it certainly felt right and I am used to characterizing it that way; I am familiar with the experience. But are “getting it right” and “experiencing rightness” the most accurate descriptions and understanding of what really happened?  I know the experience, but what is it an experience of?

To get more clarity, I went back to the beginning of my problem to follow it through its various stages. By tracking it step-by-step, I hoped to find out what I was up to and what actually happened along the way.

I suppose the very beginning was my thinking about Ivy and Shaun and the changes in circumstances that had occurred during his first year living with us. But there was no problem with that; I was merely analyzing a situation with the information available to me. My first “system alert” to a real problem was the “arrrgh” that I experienced as I found myself endlessly deliberating over the living/relationship/education circumstances. Interestingly, though, embedded in this stage was my strong desire to talk to them. Whether or not this unfulfilled desire was the psychological force cycling the issue for me, it certainly held the door to an obvious next step - talk to them.

Ah-ha!  I got it right!  Did I?  There was definitely a resolve at this point, and it felt right. But what was the something that I needed in order to get to someplace that was “right”?  There wasn't anything I lacked that I needed to get. In fact, all the elements to the next step were in plain view and directing the way. All I had to do was look.

In the next stage, however, I found the issue to be more problematic. I had something to say but my heart closed when I thought of saying it. What was that all about?  As I discovered, to offer my proposed statements to Shaun and Ivy would have been in direct conflict with my personal beliefs. Does that mean I got it wrong?  Well, I don't think there was anything untrue or invalid about my statements; nor do I see my values as inconsistent with reality, or who I am, or who I would aspire to be. It appears that the problem was more about a relationship (a misalignment in a specific situation) between two credible aspects of me and not about any “thing” that was “wrong.” In any case, I found different words to say and a way to say them that didn't close my heart.

It was this next stage, though, that I found to be the most puzzling. Why wasn't I talking to them?  What was wrong?  Didn't I get it right, yet?

Because I wasn't motivated to talk to them, I decided to sit with things as they were and see if anything changed on its own. Nothing changed at home or with my problem. At this juncture, I brought the whole thing to a LearningMethods workshop. What came up there was the double bingo that my information monologue wasn't what I meant by “discuss it with them directly — head on.”

Yippee!  I finally got it right!  Well, maybe. This last stage of the problem seems to be another relationship inconsistency, that is, my monologue solution simply didn't fulfill all the criteria of my original intention. A mismatch existed; but when I looked, I found the solution was there also. Nothing was absent.

All the semantics aside (and hopefully some of the quotation marks), I freely admit that I was experiencing what I normally call rightness and wrongness many times along the way. When I look at these moments precisely, however, I see they actually have two phases.

The first phase of rightness is the flush of recognition that I am upon a solution; something is wrong, and I have sudden clarity on what that is and what to do about it. But as we've seen, every step along the way (except the last) my right solutions were only temporary - each fell to later understandings as another wrongness appeared.

How is that best described as getting it right?  There are other times in my life when I've had that same flush of recognition and I perceived it as an ah-ha (or bingo) experience. There is another word commonly used for these moments — LEARNING. From this more accurate understanding of this first phase, it looks like getting it right just doesn't get it right. Learning is what it is. (Though I am personally fond of ah-ha as a visceral descriptive.)

The second phase of what I was calling rightness, is the time during which I was developing a solution. It felt good. That time was problem-free and easy, even when challenging, until the next wrongness came in. Is there another, more accurate way to describe this phase?  What was happening?  Well, I was fully engaged in the moment in an activity that was interesting and unfettered by personal distractions or wrongness. In other words, I was simply doing what I was doing. Is this phase of rightness a “something”, a special state of experience?  Isn't it rather, what we consider our normal way of being?

Rightness doesn't appear to be something outside of myself that I lack — like my glove, something I don't have until I find it. Nor is it an achievement to be gained. It looks like rightness is my default experience when I'm not experiencing wrongness. How do we know what's right?  When we're not experiencing wrong!

What about wrong?  Maybe it's time to take a peak at wrongness. What do we find if we go exploring there?

Wrongness, also, has two identifiable phases in my experience. I will start with the second. In this phase, I was investigating the specific contents of wrongness. What was going on?  What was I up to?  Looking back at these moments, it is clear that all the solutions arose from that content when I focused my attention there. That's where the information was (or was sometimes conspicuously absent).

Solutions were either self-evident in the information; or they were revealed as I discovered mismatches and conflicts between my own values and perceptions of reality, or my intention. There was certainly nothing wrong with that. Finding solutions was good and I used the elements of those troublesome moments to get there. Whatever else wrongness might be, at least in my problem, it was not a “thing” that I had that I needed to get rid of any more than rightness was a “thing” that I needed to get.

How did I know where to look for this information that appears to be precisely the information that I needed to solve my problem?  That happened in the initial phase of wrongness — ARRRGH!  All I had to do was wake up to an arrrgh sensation I would usually call — WRONG.

And how did I find arrrgh?  I didn't have to find it. No seeking was necessary. My millions-of-years evolved system found me. I didn't have to do anything but pay attention to it and discover what it was alerting me to (if I wanted to solve the problem). It's an always-on-the-job-maintenance-free-no-assembly-required faculty. And with every arrrgh there is the promise of an ah-ha not too far away.

Some say the world is full of problems. Certainly there are many types and degrees, but they are all in the experience and awareness of a human being. I can't say if every problem will go the way this example did, but the next time you find yourself struggling to get it right, just stop a moment and look closely at the arrrgh. It just might be the ah-ha thing to do.



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