The two girls could not look at each other anymore. Their faces were flushed and their eyes full of angry tears. One stood facing me with her arms crossed and foot thrust forward. The other stood with slumped shoulders, clutching her elbow and shifting her weight side to side as she looked through the window behind me. The other two group members sat quietly, looking away.
“You wouldn’t listen to me! I was quiet for 20 minutes and then when I did talk, every idea I suggested was shot down! Nobody in this group wants to listen to me!”
“You weren’t listening to me! I was trying to share my ideas and you kept rolling your eyes and acting like it was dumb! And when I asked you what was wrong, you said ‘nothing’ but you kept making me feel stupid!”
It was Tuesday, the second to last day of the middle school Musical Theatre class before Christmas break. I did my best to mediate so that the group could get around the impasse and back to work, but unfortunately things only escalated. I had to send both to the counselor’s office. The truth that I failed to help them see: they were both right … and both wrong. The words that they spoke were true. Each had failed to listen to the other. However, the reason they could no longer look at each other – could not face the tears on the other’s face – was that their hearts were hard with self-justification. Neither could let go of her right to be right.
It reminded me of something my mother used to say to us often when my siblings and I were young and feisty: “You might be right, but if you’re not loving, you’re wrong.” It was a saying that baffled and infuriated me. Surely right was right! Why couldn’t she see that? If I was right, I was right. Why couldn’t my siblings just admit it? Why confuse things by making something so clear and simple as ‘right’ be both right and wrong? If I was right, why should I have to apologize? And so the argument would usually end with me huffing off to soak in my rightness elsewhere, leaving my siblings to wipe their own tears.
The classroom argument this week brought a phrase from Luke 10 to mind: “seeking to justify himself.” Luke tells the story of a religious leader and expert of the law asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a question, “What is written in the Law? … How do you read it?” The expert said that it boiled down to two principles: 1) love God, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus responded with a verbal pat on the back. Well done, you got it right. “Do this and you will live.” But the man was not satisfied. He needed to justify himself, and right there is where he went off the rails. “Who is my neighbor?” Who counts? How far do I have to go? How much is enough to get me in? In this subtle act of self-justification, the man lost the essence of the law he seemed to know so well. In that moment, it was no longer about God or about the neighbor, but about himself only. The famous story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ response to the self-justifying expert of the law. The story ends with a question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man replied correctly, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Mercy. Love God and love your neighbor. How? Show mercy. To whom? Anyone who needs it, which is everyone at some point. Show mercy, especially when you are right.
Next to contempt, I know of no other emotional habit so dangerous to relationship as self-justification. It is the hot tool with which we sear and carve our hearts into artistically refined monuments of self-righteousness: impervious, unyielding, and useful only as objects of study. The two girls could not look at each other because both were crying and neither wanted to be the first to be show mercy towards those tears. Their self-justification hardened their hearts towards each other. Self-justification kept me from caring for my siblings in the way that they then needed. Self-justification hardened the expert’s heart towards the true purpose and meaning of the law – loving relationships.
Love and mercy do not undo truth and ‘rightness.’ They put them in their proper place.
I am glad to say that the girls worked through their anger in the counselor’s office. They reconciled and came to class last Thursday ready to perform together. Ironically, the song they performed was, “When I Grow Up” from the musical Matilda.
“And when I grow up,
I will be brave enough to fight the creatures
that you have to fight beneath the bed each night
to be a grown up!”
God give us courage to fight our right to be right.