Beyond right and wrong
Our story begins in a faraway placed called the Land of Right and Wrong.
In the Land of Right and Wrong, there were good people and bad people, good choices and bad.
Everyone, good and bad, knew who the good ones and the bad ones were, for everyone was labeled just so.
The land was governed by strict rules and standards. The good people who kept the rules were praised and rewarded and the bad people who broke the rules were condemned and punished.
To maintain order, everyone judged each other according to how well they conformed to the rules. They also judged themselves. Guilt, shame, and judgment were tools for order, and they worked marvelously well for that end.
No one asked why the rules were in place, for order neither elicits nor incentivizes inquisition. The fish questions not the water in which it swims.
That is, until the water becomes murky.
Such was the case for Jane Goodfellow, a very good and obedient girl born into a very good and dutiful family. Jane always kept the rules; she never felt any reason to do otherwise.
The Goodfellows lived next door to the Badders, a sinful, lazy, mean family living in a dilapidated old house with an unkempt yard. They had a daughter, Jessie, who was the same age as Jane.
Jane’s parents warned her to never go near the Badder’s house or play with Jessie. She obeyed, but she watched the family through the fence.
She watched Jessie’s father yell at her and hit her. She saw Jessie’s crestfallen, sorrowful face as she played alone in the backyard after violent incidents.
She watched Jessie grow up and become a bad girl. She was a bully at school. After graduating, she became a dancer at a club of ill repute.
Jane’s parents shook their heads and clucked their tongues every time they saw Jessie in revealing clothes.
But Jane wondered: Was Jessie really bad? Was it that simple? Or was there more to the story?
The simplistic explanations given to her by her parents no longer seemed to apply. She began searching for answers.
She discovered a story in an obscure book about an old guru who, decades earlier, had come from a different land with a different worldview. He had tried to teach people new insights, but had been rejected and banished to a mountaintop.
One day, without telling anyone, Jane packed a bag and began a trek up the mountain.
After several days she arrived at the top, where she found an old hut. She knocked on the door and an old, brown-skinned man with a white beard and a twinkle in his eye opened the door.
“Sir,” she began, “I have always been a very good girl. But I am unhappy. I am plagued by questions to which no one has any answers. Can you help me?”
Without a word, the old man ushered her in and gave her tea, while watching her with bemused eyes.
“What is your name?” Jane asked.
“My name is Sukha.”
“Where are you from?”
“I come from a place very far from here called the Land of Happiness.”
“Is it very different than the Land of Right and Wrong?”
“Oh, yes, my child, very different.”
Sukha’s face crinkled into a grin. “Do you know that I have been exiled for trying to explain this?”
“And you’re sure you want to hear it? You may not like what I have to say. And if you’re not careful, it may get you banished from your people as well.”
“Yes,” Jane said. “I’m ready.”
“Very well.” Sukha gestured for her to take a seat by the fireplace. He sat next to her and began.
“In the Land of Happiness, we see no good and bad people. We see only people who are trying to meet their needs.
“All living things have needs, and those needs are value neutral. A tree needs water, sunlight, and nutrients to grow. You would not judge or criticize a tree for seeking water.
“Everyone has unmet needs that make us discontent and unhappy. We do not label our choices as good or bad; they are all merely a quest to fulfill our needs and become happy.
“There are helpful and useful ways to meet our needs, and there are harmful and unuseful ways.
“We do not judge, criticize, or label those who choose the harmful paths for we know that they are not bad people, but are simply misguided people with deep unmet needs. Our job is not to punish them, but to teach them. Our purpose is not to compel them to conform, but rather to help them become happy.
“In your land, people who break your rules are viewed as unclean and unworthy. In our land, we see not unworthiness, but only unhappiness.
“In your land, the fundamental question that underlies all your choices is, ‘Is this something I ought to do?’ In our land we ask instead, ‘Will this be truly helpful and useful in my quest to meet my needs?’ We make choices based not on good or bad, right or wrong, but rather on fulfilling or unfulfilling, happy or unhappy.”
Sukha stopped and sipped tea quietly as Jane pondered his words. After a while, she looked up at him and told him about Jessie.
“All my life,” she said, “I’ve been told that she and others like her are bad, filthy, and degenerate. But now I see that she simply has unmet needs. And she doesn’t know how to meet them.”
“Yes,” Sukha replied. “That is the way in the Land of Right and Wrong. Since you fail to see the underlying needs of all choices, you judge all choices as right or wrong, good or bad. When people feel judged and criticized for their choices, they become fearful of asserting their needs.
“Even deeper, they lose touch of their own needs completely. If they are unhappy or unfulfilled, they judge themselves and believe it’s because something is wrong with them, or that they have done something wrong. They cannot see through the guilt, shame, and judgment to see their own deeply-hidden unmet needs.
“Judgment strips you of your ability to meet your needs honestly and skillfully.
“Trust me — whatever you or anyone else has said of Jessie, she has said to herself far more fiercely and frequently. She is filled with guilt and shame for making ‘wrong’ choices. But all of that is just a facade that conceals her deep unmet needs to feel loved and accepted. She wants to feel loved and accepted so badly that she will subject herself to horrific pain and guilt.
“She is not dirty. She is simply unskillful at meeting her needs. All choices that your people label as bad and wrong are nothing but attempts to meet deep unmet needs. All conflict and negative emotions arise from unmet needs. At the root of everything you have ever labeled bad in people is unmet needs, confusion about what those needs are precisely, and an inability to meet them.
“There is nothing wrong about those needs. The fulfillment of our needs is what makes us happy. And some choices bring us closer to fulfilling our needs and become happier, while others are deceiving and take us away from that goal.”
A light had turned on in Jane’s mind. Understanding flooded through her.
She said, “So happiness all comes down to learning how to honestly, skillfully, lovingly, compassionately, and sustainably meet our needs? That is the great secret to life, isn’t it?”
Sukha grinned and nodded, pleased to see her understanding. “Yes,” he said, “and even deeper, it’s learning how to see beyond the ‘bad’ choices of others and helping them to identify and fulfill their deep unmet needs. Your needs are fulfilled to the extent that you can help others fulfill theirs.”
Deep in thought, Jane looked up and noticed a small sign above Sukha’s door, which read,
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”