"Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" (T-29.VII.1:9). This is surely one of the most frequently quoted lines in the Course, especially when Course students are engaged in a debate of some sort. When someone expresses a strong conviction—a belief that he or she is right about something—this line is often used to suggest that being right and being happy are mutually exclusive. You can either stand up for what you believe is right or you can be happy. There is no way you can be both right and happy; this line from the Course says that you must give up any and all desire to be right in order to be happy. It has become a part of Course lore that we can be right or we can be happy, and never the twain shall meet.
But is that really what this line means? As I'm sure you've already guessed, my answer is no. I think that the prevalent view of this line is a misinterpretation, one that has led to serious negative consequences in the Course community. In this article, I'd like to take a fresh look at this line within its context so that it can be interpreted correctly, and then share why I believe it is vitally important that we do interpret it correctly.
What does this line really mean?
In order to interpret any line in the Course correctly, we need to place it in its immediate context. Let's do that now. Our line about being right or happy occurs in the first paragraph of the Text section entitled "Seek Not Outside Yourself" (T-29.VII). Here is the paragraph in its entirety:
1 Seek not outside yourself. 2 For it will fail, and you will weep each time an idol falls. 3 Heaven cannot be found where it is not, and there can be no peace excepting there. 4 Each idol that you worship when God calls will never answer in His place. 5 There is no other answer you can substitute, and find the happiness His answer brings. 6 Seek not outside yourself. 7 For all your pain comes simply from a futile search for what you want, insisting where it must be found. 8 What if it is not there? 9 Do you prefer that you be right or happy? 10 Be you glad that you are told where happiness abides, and seek no longer elsewhere. 11 You will fail. 12 But it is given you to know the truth, and not to seek for it outside yourself. (T-29.VII.1:1-12)
The theme of this paragraph is expressed in the very first sentence: "Seek not outside yourself." Jesus pleads with us here not to seek outside ourselves for salvation. He implores us to give up our futile search for idols—external things like beauty, wealth, fame, and special relationship partners—which we falsely believe will make us happy. He reminds us that in truth these things have brought us pain and disappointment, for they were made as shabby substitutes for Heaven, which is the only thing that can really make us happy. Heaven is not found outside us, but within: "God dwells within, and your completion lies in Him" (T-29.VII.6:3). Our choice is simple: If we look for happiness where it is not (outside ourselves), we will weep; if we look for it where it is (within), we will be happy.
This is the context in which we must interpret "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" The key is in the sentences immediately surrounding it. Sentence 7 tells us that our pain comes from insisting on looking for what we want (happiness) in places where it can't be found (outside ourselves, in idols). Sentence 8 asks us the pointed question "What if it is not there?"; this question challenges our belief that our happiness is to be found outside ourselves, and invites us to seriously consider the possibility that it isn't. Sentence 10 invites us to be glad that we are told (by God, through the Holy Spirit) where real happiness can be found (within), so we can give up the futile search for happiness in external idols.
Notice that a contrast has been set up between a wrong choice and a right choice. The wrong choice is seeking outside ourselves for idols, which will not make us happy, but which we wrongly insist will make us happy. The right choice is to let go of our insistence that we know where happiness can be found, so that we can be told where it is truly found. If we make the right choice, we will find happiness. Given this context, what does "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" mean? When we plug in the meaning of the surrounding discussion, it means this:
Do you prefer to insist that you are right that happiness can be found outside yourself, even though you are actually wrong and therefore unhappy? Or would you rather be told what is right—that happiness can only be found within—so that you will search for happiness in the right place, and therefore be happy?
One could express the gist of this sentence in this way: "Would you rather insist on the wrong answer and be unhappy, or would you rather be told the right answer so you can be happy?"
We can see that this passage is not down on the idea of rightness at all; on the contrary, it says that happiness depends on being right through listening to the right Voice and seeking for happiness in the right place. What the passage is actually targeting is our investment in a so-called "right" stance that is actually wrong. The problem isn't our being right; the problem is our insisting that we're right when we're wrong. To be happy, we must give up our investment in our wrong stance, and accept the right one instead.
This idea of giving up our investment in a wrong stance in order to accept the right one comes up again later in the Text, in the section entitled "Rules for Decision" (T-30.I). The wrong stance targeted in this section is our stubborn insistence that happiness lies in making decisions by ourselves, without the Holy Spirit's help. The willingness to admit that we might be wrong about this is the key to the whole process of giving decisions back to the Holy Spirit so that we can find happiness:
Now you have reached the turning point, because it has occurred to you that you will gain if what you have decided [that making decisions by yourself will bring you happiness] is not so. Until this point is reached, you will believe your happiness depends on being right. But this much reason have you now attained; you would be better off if you were wrong. (T-30.I.10:1-3)
Here, as in the "right or happy" passage, the problem isn't being right, but rather having "the goal of being right when you are wrong" (T-30.I.11:6). Our wrongness is the cause of our unhappiness, which is why we are "better off" when we are willing to consider the idea that our pig-headed insistence on making our own decisions is wrong. This willingness opens the door to the right decision, the decision to listen to the Holy Spirit, which will bring us the happiness we seek.
Being right, then, is something the Course smiles upon and even encourages. But what about taking an outward stand for what is right? Even if being right is a good thing, isn't taking an outward stand simply the ego making the error real?
If Jesus, our "model for learning" (T-6.In.2:1), is any indicator, the answer would have to be no. In his earthly lifetime, Jesus stood up for the Kingdom of God to the point of being crucified, insisting that everyone—even the downtrodden, the "sinners," the marginalized, and the rejected—was beloved of God and a rightful heir to the Kingdom. He is no less insistent in the Course, where he places great value on being right, as we've already seen. What is the Course itself but Jesus' unequivocal declaration of what is right? If the message of "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" is that all assertions of rightness bar the door to happiness, then Jesus is an unhappy fellow indeed.
Jesus declares quite openly that his Course is right, telling us that its "words are true" (T-9.V.9:4). His goal for us is right-mindedness. He has no reservations about saying to us, "You are wrong" (T-5.V.6:14, et. al.). He tells us that "God is right" (T-14.IV.4:5). He says of the Holy Spirit that "His answers are always right" (M-29.2:13). He even smiles upon the idea of "appropriate behavior" (T-1.III.6:4)—in other words, right behavior—though he also makes it clear that the rightness or wrongness of behavior doesn't depend on the form of the behavior, but rather on whether the Holy Spirit or the ego inspires it. All in all, Jesus seems quite comfortable with standing up for things that he believes to be right.
Of course, we aren't egoless beings with absolute knowledge as Jesus is, and so I think we would be unwise to assert our rightness with the kind of authority and certainty that he does. We need to be open to the very real possibility that we are wrong, and we need to make a habit of asking the Holy Spirit to tell us what is right and what stands we should take. My point here is simply that standing up for what we believe is right is not inherently a barrier to happiness. If Jesus himself did it, both very dramatically in his earthly life and in the Course, why would he forbid us from doing it? Rather than a barrier to happiness, being right in the deepest sense of relinquishing our egoic stubbornness and listening to the Holy Spirit's guidance for how to think, how to speak, and how to act is the way to happiness. That is the message of "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?"
Why is it important that we interpret this line correctly?
It should be fairly clear by now why I think that correctly understanding this line and the teaching behind it is vitally important. An interpretation which says that we have an either/or choice between being right and being happy leads to (or at least reinforces) two mistaken ideas that, in my opinion, have had serious negative consequences in the Course community. The first mistaken idea is that it is wrong to seek for what is right. The second, which logically follows from the first, is that it is wrong to take a stand for what you believe is right. I can see at least three negative consequences which have followed from these ideas:
The idea that it is wrong to seek for what is right blocks the search for truth
If we believe that it is wrong to seek for what is right, then we will see the very quest for rightness or truth as somehow tainted by ego, somehow antithetical to happiness. I have seen this exact view expressed in the Course community. But I think the exact opposite is the case. I think that the honest search for truth is the royal road to ego transcendence, which makes it the royal road to happiness. The ego itself is a lie, a wrong-headed image of ourselves that fights off truth in the name of its own self-interest. How, then, can we get beyond the ego except through laying self-interest aside and committing ourselves to the honest search for truth? This is what I believe the Course wants us to do, but we won't do it if we believe that such searching is a block to happiness, rather than the gateway to it.
The idea that it is wrong to take a stand for what you believe is right blocks dialogue about the Course
Before I discuss how this happens, let me begin by sharing my personal vision of Course dialogue. In my opinion, dialogue about the Course is most fruitful when its goal is to find the right interpretation of the Course, meaning the interpretation that most closely reflects the author's intention. Joining together in this common goal inevitably involves debate about which of our interpretations is closer to the author's intention. It involves deciding what interpretation is right, stating that we believe a particular interpretation is right, and presenting evidence for why we believe it is right. It involves listening carefully to others as they do the same thing.
Whether we wish to admit it or not, it is inevitable that we take a stand for what we believe is the right interpretation of the Course whenever we say anything about the Course at all. Even claiming that the Course says we shouldn't take such a stand is taking such a stand. Done in the right spirit, with loving intent and open-mindedness to the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the opinions of others, dialogue about our various interpretations has the potential to greatly deepen our understanding of the Course.
But if we claim that the Course tells us we shouldn't stand up for what we believe is right, any chance at this kind of dialogue goes out the window. I have seen potentially fruitful dialogue squelched by this idea more times than I can count. Here's how it often happens: As I said, any dialogue about the Course involves debate about which interpretation is right. Sometimes, of course, we will disagree about what is right, and this can often stir up our egos in a variety of ways. Sometimes the very rightness of one person's position threatens the ego of the other. Sometimes a person can state a position, even a right one, in an egoic, attacking way. Given that we all have egos, I think this is an inevitable problem, but one that could be effectively resolved in a number of ways, from simply remembering our common purpose of finding the truth to taking time out to do a Course practice.
Unfortunately, the "solution" many people seem to hit upon when egos collide in is to trot out "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" (often accompanied by the well-known story of Bill Thetford's admonition to tear out a page of the Course if we disagree about what it says). People do this with the best of intentions; indeed, bringing up this line might be helpful if it were interpreted correctly. Unfortunately, however, the standard Course community interpretation is generally assumed, which ends up scuttling the dialogue because rather than targeting egoic ways of handling disagreement (the real problem), it targets the whole idea of rightness. In doing so, it makes dialogue aimed at finding the right interpretation of the Course impossible, since such dialogue assumes, as it must, the goal of rightness. Faced with what seems to be a stark choice between two mutually exclusive options—rightness and happiness—we seem to have no choice but to end the dialogue, if we want to be happy. The joint quest for truth, which offers so many potential benefits, unfortunately comes to an end.
The idea that it is wrong to take a stand for what you believe is right blocks the calling to take a stand in the world
Many of us feel called to take a stand for something, be it ending world hunger, finding a cure for AIDS, or advocating for a kinder and gentler US foreign policy. Of course, our particular calling may have nothing to do with such large-scale political and social issues, but virtually everyone has a desire to do something to make the world a better place, however small that something may be. While it is true that we can stand for the wrong things for the wrong reasons, it is equally true that a stand for what we believe is right can be truly inspired by the Holy Spirit.
But this possibility is effectively ruled out if we believe that we must choose between being right and being happy. If the Holy Spirit guides us to take a stand for what He considers to be right, and we use the statement "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" to justify not taking a stand, we are effectively using the Course to block the Holy Spirit Himself. Unfortunately, I think this really happens. I think that many sincere Course students feel a yearning to stand up for something, a yearning that may well be the Holy Spirit's call to them, but refrain from doing so out of a belief that the Course somehow forbids it.
The benefits of the correct interpretation
The main benefit I see in correctly interpreting "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" is that it allows the line to be what I believe Jesus really intended it to be: a challenge to our egoic insistence on being right at the expense of real rightness and of our happiness. Stubbornly clinging to a wrong position no matter how much pain it causes us is a virtually universal human phenomenon. This line is both a challenge to us to seriously question our way of seeing things and an invitation to accept a new way of seeing things that is both right and happy.
I consider both of the things this line is encouraging—the willingness to admit it when we are wrong, and the willingness to accept what is right "because it is the truth" (T-21.VII.5:14)—to be among the highest of human virtues. Insisting on our wrong-headed stance and refusing to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong is the height of ego; letting our wrong stance go and accepting the right one because it is the truth is the height of ego transcendence.
Thus the correct understanding of this line, which says that being right through listening to the right Voice is the way to be happy, frees us to seek for truth and stand up for what we believe is right without reservation. Certainly we may be wrong, and so even as we take a stand, we should always be aware of our fallibility and open to a new way of seeing things. We should also be careful that we don't stand up for a truly right idea in a wrong, egoic way. But while we should be vigilant against the ego, we should also recognize that it is our function to stand up for what is right; we are to demonstrate right-mindedness through our thoughts, words, and deeds, just as Jesus did in his earthly life and in writing the Course. Our happiness depends on our fulfilling this function. It is our calling, and a correct interpretation of this line frees us to fulfill the function the Holy Spirit has for us.
Since we really cannot avoid taking a stand one way or the other, why not stand up for what is right? Being truly right is good, something the Course wants us to choose and tells us we must choose to be happy. The line "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" doesn't tell us that rightness and happiness are mutually exclusive; it tells us that rightness and happiness are inseparable. It invites us to open our minds and hearts to the Holy Spirit, the Voice for God Who "always speaks for the right choice" (T-5.II.8:1). Let us, then, choose to listen to Him, and extend His message to the world by standing up unequivocally for what is right. Only in this way will we find happiness.