sunday life: in which i learn the beauty of not being right

Posted on May 30th, 2010

This week I choose to not be right (and find beauty in a field beyond right and wrong).


Ever been stuck in a toxic relationship rut? I mean really stuck.

Perhaps it was with a spouse, a partner, or your boss or neighbour.  An issue arises, they react aggressively, you react just as primitively to their reaction, and so on and on in a spiral of right versus wrong.  Soon, you’ve both sunk into a festering quagmire of codependent hurt. You might know better than to descend like this; perhaps you’ve had therapy. But each time the scab’s knocked off the wound, you retaliate like an old lizard. You’re that stuck.

It’s rotten, this quagmire. Blame and shame turn rancid very quickly. And the detritus of old pain gets awfully sticky and suck-holey. So it’s hard to leave, or to shift the energy in a new direction.

But what if there was another path? Controversially, American writer Laura Munson’s found one and this week she guided me along it. Laura is a publishing phenomenon. Last year she wrote a column in the New York Times‘ Modern Love section about how her husband woke one day to tell her he didn’t love her and was leaving. They were in a rut. Instead of reacting to his reptilian pain, she calmly said, “I don’t buy it”. He was having a crisis that had nothing to do with her. She had to be strong and save the marriage. The column (which also ran in this magazine last year) became the most read item online and has now become a book: This is Not the Story You Think It Is.

Love-heart-message-001 I like Laura. She’s calm and still. And she now sees the ordeal as a gift. She’s not a fraud; I hear the groundedness in her voice. Laura didn’t set out to keep her husband. Instead her aim was to end her suffering. “I remember asking myself, what if I don’t make it into a fight?” she says. Retaliating and being fixated with right and wrong, she reasoned, would only cause spiraling suffering. And she knew she had no control over his crisis, which was mostly about his career direction. He needed to work through it on his own. “I was faced with a choice: I was going to let this take me down, or I was going to learn to base my happiness on something that was within my control”. bookjacket_ThisIsNotTheStory

Her husband spurted horrible, straight-for-the jugular stuff. Laura bit her tongue. He’d disappear on her and their two kids for days at a time, partying like he was 20, not 40.  She held her energy. She was about to lose everything. But chose to be calm and still. And it worked.

At this juncture I’m going to do something I’ve resisted since starting this column: drop in a poignant quote by a long-dead wise person. But it’s my favourite quote and is so wonderfully apt. It’s from the13th Century philosopher Rumi:

“Out beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field – I’ll meet you there.”

It hits a spot, doesn’t it? It suggests that not being right (or wrong) is a place we can choose to go to. That it just exists, once we drop knee-jerk judgment, and is entirely accessible. If. We. Just. Choose. It.

Of course we all know to not get attached to other people’s crap. We’ve read the self-help books, downloaded the podcasts. But rarely do we live out such wisdom. Such considered detachment, I think, is the most challenging behaviour in the human repertoire. How did Laura do it?  “Every moment I simply committed to end my suffering,” she says. Which was an achievable goal because it was something she could control. Unlike committing to coaxing a wayward husband home. She also cooked and gardened. Which, I find, tends to work for women when they’re going through grand debacles. Nurturing sets a powerful, certain tone for us.

“Plus, I visualised,” she says. When her husband got nasty, she’d see it as the game it was. “Like a ball thrown at me. I could catch it and hurl it back. Or let it drop.”

Chatting to Laura had me reflecting this week on similar grand debacles I’ve faced in my rutted relationship career. I’ve been close to where she was with her husband. And, truth be known, I’m still a little attached (goddamn, I was in the “right”!). How would I do it differently now? I’d commit to ending my suffering, too. Which would mean dropping that “But I’m right” ball. And that “But it’s the principle of the thing” ball. And I’d visualise Rumi’s field, which is where I try to meet most people these days.

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  • Ian

    Sarah, lovely post. I’m reminded that even in horrible situations that can be outside our control like Laura’s, we do get to choose how we respond. And in that choice lies an amazing amount of hope. Perhaps that’s the “field out beyond” that Rumi refers to: the one filled with hope, one that makes the journey of transformation possible…


  • Kirsten

    Fantastic post Sarah.


  • Margo

    You’re posts are getting better and better, a joy to read them.


  • belinda

    There is a saying that songs arts or books come to you when you need them most. Your article was that today. I am the queen (drama or bee) who swore those three little words I wanted to hear were you are right. Now I know I need Laurens ball skills to throw it let it lob with I am sorry and I love you to someone I hurt thanks sarah


  • ruby

    sappy bullshit


  • Xanthe Addison

    Sarah that’s a beautiful saying and a gorgeous way to live. Once again reading your column this week reminded me of the peaceful position one should aim for (and not just on a Sunday while bumming around in my pj’s, drinking english breakfast past 9am! This week while facing the crazy life of the advertising industry I shall have the ‘field’ in mind as a better place to meet my big personality colleagues. I hope you’re enjoying writing as much as we are reading!


  • Sharni

    Great post and timely – I recently wrote a post that stirred up a lot of controversy and discussion and plenty of ‘in the right’ type comments. This is good food for thought . My closing comments to the very lively ‘dicsussion’ was the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum, what might be right for you – may not be right for some….. influenced by the passing of Gary Coleman.
    It does take different strokes.


  • Marthe

    Great post! I realize that this is where I need to go. My temper can sometimes take control over me, and I’m guessing, mixed with a little bit of my pride, this is getting me nowhere.

    This article helped me realize I have to take control over arguments and stop them from growing into ruts. And in that sense, I’m right, in a way.


  • Sandra R

    Just finished reading this in the Sunday papers – great post and so true – though very hard to to. Thanks Sarah – your articles always seem to come up at the right time!


  • olinka

    Hi Sarah! What a great post, it makes you think and look at the relationships from a very different angle. It is only two weeks since I bought the book by Laura Munson and I can’t wait to start to reading it while on the plane this Thursday. Your favourite quote by Rumi now has been entered into my little book of favourite motivation quotes together with……I am on mission to find ways to make life bigger more meaningful, nicer, smarter, heartier…….somehow after reading your atrticle on Sunday afternoon and suffering from terrible cold my life seems lighter, my heart warmer and I caught my self smilling for no apparent reason …just feeling inner happiness….thank you


  • Gary

    Hi Sarah, I loved your article; right and wrong has people flying planes into buildings, stoning people to death and jailing others simply holding a view contrary to the state. Extreme examples they are and far from ‘sappy bullshit’ as Ruby commented.
    The ability to give up being right in any relationship, husband and wife, teacher and student, labor versus liberal, black versus white, female versus male, Israel versus Palestine, gay versus straight, etc, provides scope for true equality and freedom.
    One of the most liberating things we can do as humans is to be the bearer of compassion and empathy. Not to the detriment of oneself, but simply with the goal of understanding what is really occurring for the other person and being prepared to give up being right where the potential outcome will clearly generate a loss of power, freedom, love, integrity and in the extreme, LIFE!
    May we all cross paths in Rumi’s field and let it not be a dream.
    With thanks to you Sarah


  • Terry

    Is this similar to when two people “Agree to Diasgree” ?
    Enjoyed the article, thanks….


  • Belle

    This is all well and good. I admire the author of the book for sticking it out and choosing not to fight, but it smacks of superiority. What’s that? When your husband chooses to domestically abuse you, all you have to do is not respond? Take up gardening?

    That really makes a mockery of domestic abuse. Abuse is about power and sure, if you’re strong enough not to get into that power struggle, then good for you.
    Having been in that situation myself, having had that man stand over me and scream that I ‘bitchslutwhore’ whilst my kids were in the same house, I left.

    And now, whilst he runs his own business, he doesn’t pay his child support, claiming to earn nothing. Should I choose not to fight that too? Be the better person? Let it go? Not throw the ball back?

    Not all marriages are savable. Dropping the ‘I’m right’ ball happens pretty quickly IME because there are no winners in a marriage ending. It’s not about ‘being right’ … it’s about dignity, about survival, and gathering back your self esteem bit by bit.


  • Mihiri

    Sarah, I loved your quote from Rumi and have remembered it often in the last week. Thank you for sharing it.


  • Rob

    Hi Sarah, Thank you for your article, as always I look forward to your sunday food for thought, I was very taken by the Rumi quote you mentioned, you have opened my eyes to something that rings true in my way of thinking also. Thank you.


  • Lenore

    Hey Sarah – I always enjoy your articles and often cut them out and stick them on my mirror for the week as food for thought. This weeks was particularly poignant and apt for the week I am having – thanks for sharing the Rumi quote, it is beautiful and I’ve found my week take a different direction by trying to adhere to his thoughts. Thank you :)


  • Jonathan

    Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?


  • William

    Hi Sarah, stirred things up a little with this one. My comment is this. When you are a parent, you find yourself going past right and wrong all the time, to that other place, so that your kids get some patient perspective. In relationships, other than as a parent, sometimes we are just plain right and sometimes just plain wrong. Life’s like that, we get choices. Bugger, they can be painfull though. Bert or Ernie? Regards, William.


  • William

    A follow up to above comment and my non prophetic words. Last night, some not so sweet exchanges between myself and 18 yr old son, a bit ugly in fact. I didn’t make it to that other place past right and wrong. Too bad, this comes under a Life’s like That stuff up. A parents lot. William


  • Sally

    I now have this quote on my fridge – thankyou!


  • Laura Munson

    Thanks, Sarah for this beautiful post. I love this quote too. Rumi’s field is full of possibility. FInding happiness to me, is about letting go. I had to let go of my husband loving me again. Mine wasn’t a strategy to stay married. Some marriages are meant to end, as one of your readers noted. While I didn’t feel that mine was, I had to let go of the future and focus on the present moment where Rumi’s Field offers freedom. I wasn’t always good at it. My book is full of inner tantrums. I think that’s why people like my book– it’s real. It offers a different solution to pain, but it’s still full of honesty and struggle. I hope it helps many people and thank you so much for writing about This Is Not The Story You Think It Is. Sending you and your readers all the best from a rainy Montana morning.
    Laura Munson


  • Sarah

    Hey Laura, lovely to hear from you. I think the bravest, boldest thing you say is that you didn’t intend to stay married. And that you let go of your husband ever loving you again. You hung out on the farthest limb. I admire that!!
    Again, if you find yourself down south, a swim at Bondi and a cup of tea….!
    Have fun in Rumi’s field. x


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  • Laura Munson

    Yes a swim and a cup of tea! Just found out that the book is #5 down there? Is this possible? I must make a dream come true and come to Australia with my family.
    oooxxx Laura



    Sarah Reply:

    Hoorah!!! You were on Sunrise…I’ve spoken to quite a few people who’ve read the book….Please come visit!!!


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  • Debs

    What happened in the end? Are you still with your husband? How did he react to the book?