Letting go of being right


When it comes to pop culture, I’m often behind the curve. I like to wait until the hype over a new movie or CD or book has faded so that my take isn’t clouded by popular opinion. Which is why I’m only now coming to read “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 National Book Award-winning novel about the members of a Midwestern family. It’s taken me more than a month to slog through its 466 pages — not because it’s not brilliantly written (which it is) or because the story isn’t compelling (it’s that, too) — but because the characters are so inherently unlikeable.

Mr. Franzen is a master of voice and a perceptive chronicler of the human condition, but I would hate to know any of the characters in his book.

Much of the story centers around Alfred and Enid Lambert, a couple married more than 40 years, whose relationship is a study in marital dysfunction. In the last pages of the book, Enid visits Alfred at the nursing home where he lives out his final days and unloads a lifetime’s worth of passive-aggression.

“She’d felt wrong all her life and now she had a chance to tell him how wrong he was,” the book says. “She had to come and tell Alfred that he was wrong to dribble ice cream on his clean, freshly pressed pants. He was wrong not to recognize Joe Person when Joe was nice enough to drop in. He was wrong not to look at snapshots of Aaron and Caleb and Jonah. He was wrong not to b e happy or grateful or even remotely lucid when his wife and daughter went to enormous trouble to bring him home for Thanksgiving dinner.”

It’s a tough scene to get through, mostly because it hits so close to the truth.

We’ve all witnessed those couples — some together for decades, some just down the aisle — who engage in the same emphatic insistence on being right, a behavior pattern that is appealing in its own unhealthy way, l i ke fast food or pop music.

Katherine Woodward Thomas, author and psychologist who I seem to be quoting every week, says that letting go of the need to be right will make a monumental difference in our relationships.

“It feels good to be a big person — the one to forgive, the one to apologize first, the one to give up saving face,” she writes in “Calling in ‘The One’: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life.” She tells us: “Once you take a deep breath and give up the need to be right, to look good, to punish someone for hurting you, or to make someone wrong, then you are free to experience a profound love that becomes a way of life.”

Which is exactly what most of us are aiming for. We get so wrapped up in asserting our infallibility that we lose sight of the ultimate goal of our relationships: to make ourselves and our partners happy.

Why not take a step back, open our curled fists, and try — for a few hours, for a few days — not being right. That could mean the difference between being unlikeable characters and characters that others love. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Am I right? ¦

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2012-05-24 digital edition

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