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Asking the clergy: What is the difference between righteous and self-righteous?

JoAnn Barrett

JoAnn Barrett Credit: Gathering of Light Interspiritual Fellowship

Acting morally superior is not the same as acting virtuously. This week’s clergy discuss the pitfalls of believing one is always in the right.

The Rev. JoAnn Barrett

Senior multifaith officiant, Gathering of Light Interspiritual Fellowship, Melville

A question is asked in “A Course in Miracles” (The Foundation for Inner Peace), a self-study book of spiritual psychotherapy: “Would you rather be right or happy?” It leads me back to the internal dilemma of intention. I believe that true righteous behavior is fueled with a loving intent, while self-righteous behavior is motivated by fear. If I ask the simple question, “What is it for?” — if I can truly respond with “love,” then most likely my behavior is righteous. Some may say that righteous behavior is subjective to one’s beliefs or religious doctrine. I believe there is a universal thread that runs through all beliefs that calls us to be humble and honest. Take, for example, a simple situation of retelling a story about another person to someone else. Is it the right thing to do? I could be motivated by emotionalism. “They have to know this.” The honest part could be uncovered with three simple questions: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me, now? True righteous humility comes after I ask myself that last question. I include one more. Can I surrender the decision to a loving power greater than myself? Actions following this process are now no longer formulated by me alone. The best part of this is that I no longer need to be right and I can be happy.

Rabbi Yanki Sacchs

Founder and director, The Chai Center, Dix Hills

I believe there are three ways to check whether one’s behavior is proper or not. The first method is a self-check. One needs to ask oneself constantly, “Is my current behavior, attitude, motivation or interaction being driven by compassion, or is it being driven by ego and/or greed?” The Kabbalah teaches that compassion is such a powerfully positive and holy emotion, that it is very difficult to be led astray if it is the primary motivator. All other emotions, the Kabbalah teaches, can be self-serving except for the attribute of compassion. The second and third ways of assessing one’s behavior are not based on self-check but rather receiving input from other human beings. There is a very famous set of Jewish books called “Chapters of our Fathers,” which is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the rabbis of the Mishnaic period that date back to about 200 BCE. Chapter 1; Mishna 16 states “Get for yourself a mentor, and acquire a friend.” The Mishna is teaching us that because a self-check can be so subjective, it is wise to “check in” with a mentor and peer. The difference between the two is obvious. A mentor is someone you must respect but you do not necessarily resonate entirely with, as he/she is probably older and has a greater status. A peer, on the other hand, resonates with you but the relationship is not one of deep respect, but rather commonality. Seek them both out, demands the Mishna, as only combining respect with connection are you able to understand whom you really are. Reaching out to these two important people will help guide you through the complex process to ascertain the source of your behavior.

Ines Frank

Teacher of meditation, Global Harmony House, Great Neck

I think one sign that helps us to recognize the quality of our behavior is how the other person feels. If I’m coming from a righteous place, from a pure place of intention, from a very genuine place within, then the words that I speak, or the actions I perform, will give happiness to others; they will make the other person feel good, and I will also feel good. On the other hand, when I come from a selfish, self-righteous place, I’m not connected with my true self but with what I believe that I am. As a result, my actions will give sorrow to others. For example, if I take my identity and power from a position such as, “I am the boss,” then my attitude, and in most cases, my words, will project the message, that “I am right, I have a right over you, you have to listen to me, you have to respect me, etc.” There will be an imbalance between you and me. I am more, higher, better than you. The behavior will be one of arrogance. On the other hand, if I am connected with my true self, even though I may not have made a mistake, I can recognize that the feelings of the other person are hurt. For some reason there was a misunderstanding where the other one took sorrow from my words or my actions. In such a case, I may even apologize just to comfort the heart of the other person because when I am connected to the true self, there will also be true self-respect.

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