At first glance, being right seems to be about nothing but the facts. At times important facts, but facts nonetheless. But when we view this from a neuroscience standpoint, we begin to see so much more. If being right is, as I mentioned in Part 1, largely about survival, one only has to turn to the recent work of Jim Coan, a neuropsychologist at the University of Virginia. Coan’s work suggests that the baseline functioning “unit” of humanity may not be the individual person, but rather at least two (perhaps more) people in relationship. This of course, would also suggest that “survival” might have less to do with the survival of any one individual and more to do with the preservation—“survival”—of intimate relationships.
What does this have to do with “being right?” More significantly, what does it mean when we are “wrong?” First, it suggests that when we feel the urgency to demonstrate that we are right about anything, and especially in the context of relational conflict, what our brain is doing is primarily attempting to maintain connection. “How so?” you may wonder. We only have to examine what it means to be “wrong” to find out. Being wrong, in many circumstances, means one is not only mistaken, but one is, by implication, inadequate or ineffective. This of course bears the hint, and eventually for many the full on experience of shame. In theory, I don’t mind being wrong: it means I am only learning something new. In practice, however, being wrong activates so much imagery, thoughts, feelings, and sensations related in mild to severe forms of shame. I’m not just wrong about making a right or left turn; I’m wrong about my marriage, about my job, about just about anything that matters, and especially about God. And to be wrong is to be ashamed in these stories. And shame is ultimately about being left. Left, as in left behind, left out, discarded, dismissed, abandoned. And we will do anything to prevent this. For to be abandoned—to be left—is to be left alone. Not alone as in “by myself in my apartment,” but alone as in what hell would be like. And last I checked, nobody I know wants that.
Thus we see that our need to be right is mostly a need to prevent being left. Which may come as no surprise, not only because Jim Coan is finding this to be true empirically, but because many years ago it was written: “…Let Us make man in our image…” and that “…it is not good for man to be alone…” This relational God of Father, Son, and Spirit knows nothing but relationship, knows nothing of being left or the shame that is its harbinger; and he longs for it to be no other way for his creation that he loves. Not surprisingly, when our first mother and father ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they too were seeking to be “right,” to “know” in a way that did not depend on the risk-taking venture of relationship. Relationship with a God who I suspect is less primarily concerned that we are right, and more concerned that we are not being left. No wonder Jesus went as far as he did to proclaim that he would never leave us. And now research in brain science is reflecting the weight of his words.
So what to offer to my friend at the beginning of this story, back in Part 1? Perhaps in the end, the crucial question is not so much “Am I right about what I think about God?” but rather “Am I willing to believe—to be-living-as-if—God will never leave me?” (That we even assume that the more we can describe the function of the brain that correlates with our experience of God the less God is real but rather a function or extension of our brains tells us more about the way we have come to think over the last four hundred years, and less about God, but that is for another space). And one would then wonder how our lives would be different in any moment if each of those moments was shaped by the awareness of a God who energetically and delightfully remains in your presence. My guess is, when we can’t be left, we worry less about being right.
Where in your life is your being right more about being left? Isn’t it good to know that since with Jesus the latter never happens, we don’t have to worry about the former?