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I remember reading a billboard sponsored by a local motor vehicle department that cautioned, “You can be dead right.”
Obviously, the reference was to persons whose “righteous” actions could also be fatal mistakes. When the need to be right supersedes common sense, the results are disastrous and deadly.
Instead of giving way to errant drivers, they kept on going because they had the right-of-way and the other drivers did not. They were right. The others were wrong.
The same sort of thing happens in other areas of our lives. Being right gets in the way of merciful charity.
We say or do things that are correct but are also chastising. We take the charge of being our brother or sister’s keeper literally, but not to heart. We correct others without noting the time and place might be inappropriate. Worse yet, we do this most often to those we love the most.
And, we are dead right. Only the death is not ours. It is the crushingly mortal blow we deliver that causes others to die a little, to be embarrassed, to feel belittled, put down and dismissed.
We may do this deliberately at times—and that is nothing short of sinful. But, I suspect, it is most often traced to a lack of awareness or a sense of comfortableness gone awry.
I suspect we are all very cautious about what we say and do in the presence of strangers. We don’t take chances with budding relationships, lest they be crushed before we even get to know each other.
But, as time passes and we acquire a certain ease with each other there is frequently an equivalent lessening of caution. With that diminishment, charity also lessens.
Discussions become exercises in disagreement. Foibles are placed in the light of critical examination. We tell cute stories that feature the idiosyncrasies of the other. Nothing is wrong, but everything is dead right.
I know this is true because I have been the “dead right” person many times. Never did I mean to cause pain. I did not intend to cause anyone to feel miserable or inadequate. But, it happened. I did say and do what I need not have said or done. Worse yet, I did it publicly.
It all happened because I was dead right.
Something else occurred at the same time. I did not feel good about myself. What I initiated had its fatal implications for me, as well. And, that was a good thing.
As I felt the pain and suffering, a deeper sorrow entered. Missing the mark of goodness was no fun. I was sad. I knew I could not retract my words or erase the memories. I couldn’t “kiss the boo-boo and make it better.”
Knowing I could not turn back the pages of time and do it over and differently was killing me.
I was dead right.
All I could do was seek forgiveness—and live my apology. That’s all any of us can do. We can engage our hearts before we start our mental engines. We can think before we speak and carefully choose the time and place for truth-sharing.
Better yet, we can access and analyze the necessity for that sharing and follow the example set by Jesus in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.
In the process of their conversation, Jesus had a truth he wanted to share with her. But, he did so by confirming her accuracy, not by insisting on his own. He asked her to call her husband and then return to the well. She responded, “I do not have a husband.”
Jesus agreed. “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” [John 4: 18]
He was right. But, he was not dead right. He did not “kill” her with the truth. He led her to it. He brought her to an understanding of herself and of him that did not deny the truth but made it tangible.
Nothing was lost in the process and everyone gained by it. She was changed because he demonstrated her accuracy without ever being dead right.
I hope I will remember the story and my experiences of truthfulness. I hope the memory will be engraved deeply enough into my being that I will first recall my own truth before ever exposing that of another.
I pray that I’ll know the difference between being right and being “dead right.” I trust that I will always repent and believe the good news.
This is the Lenten story. It is the journey from ashes to Easter. Those “little” things we do because we are dead right erode our natural goodness, our gift of holiness.
Those same “little things” can initiate a change of heart and mind, a transformation and renewed response to grace. They can turn us around, put us on the right path, and give us opportunities to understand how to be right without being dead right. It will entail crucifixion, to be sure. But, resurrection lurks in the wings.
There is hope. About this fact, I am dead right.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master's degree in theology and is the author of, AWAKENING TO GOD: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of scriptural meditations], leadchaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader and lecturer.