On March 16, 1968, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a US Army helicopter pilot, and two crewmen were flying a reconnaissance mission over the South Vietnamese village of My Lai when they witnessed the massacre of civilians taking place. Responding quickly to the senseless violence that was unfolding, Thompson set his aircraft down between a group of civilians who were fleeing for their lives and the American soldiers who were pursuing them, then ordered his crew to shoot anyone who fired on the civilians. No one did. Thompson next commanded the pilots of the two helicopter gunships that were escorting his small, scouting aircraft to evacuate the civilians. As Thompson began to fly his helicopter out of My Lai, one of his crewmen, Glenn Andreotta, spotted someone moving in a ditch that was filled with dead bodies. Once again Thompson set his chopper down, and Andreotta pulled a boy who was still alive from the ditch, then they flew him to a South Vietnamese Army hospital for medical treatment.
When he returned to base to refuel his helicopter, Thompson reported what he had seen to his superior officers. They in turn issued orders to the American troops in My Lai to stop the killing. “They said I was screaming quite loud,” Thompson told US News & World Report in 2004. “I threatened never to fly again. I didn’t want to be part of that. It wasn’t war.”
After completing his tour of duty in Vietnam, Thompson returned to the US to train helicopter pilots. When the revelations about My Lai surfaced, he testified before a Congressional military inquiry and in the court martial of Lt. William Calley, Jr., the platoon leader at My Lai and the only soldier to be convicted of the massacre. On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, Thompson attended a memorial service in My Lai. “Something terrible happened here 30 years ago today,” Thompson was quoted as saying. “I cannot explain why it happened. I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did.”
Although most of us will never be called upon to do the right thing under such extraordinary circumstances as Thompson and his crewmen faced, we are, however, challenged to do the right thing in numerous difficult situations throughout our daily lives. And although most of us are attracted to the idea of doing the right thing even when it’s hard, we often feel inadequate. We’re uncomfortable about whether we can find the way to do the right thing, or it’s not clear to us what the right thing to do is. Sometimes we do the wrong thing because we’re simply ignorant of what the right thing to do is, or we misperceive the situation, or our minds are clouded with greed, anger, or some other emotions. But if you wish to live authentically, it is crucial that you choose to do the right thing as one of your intentions and make it a practice. You can do this by setting the intention that, “In this moment I’m going to do the right thing as best I’m able,” and placing trust in your intention.
To trust in this way requires humility because sometimes you’re going to do the wrong thing, or you’re going to chicken out, or you’re not going to think about it one way or the other. How often have you been in a meeting at work when there’s an “elephant in the room” that needed to be named but you didn’t name it and neither did anyone else? Humility allows you to make mistakes and to start over when you fail. It also frees you of the expectation that you should be rewarded for doing the right thing.
Many times you won’t know what the right thing to do is, so cultivating “don’t know mind” can prepare the ground for new possibilities to arise. When faced with a difficult situation, ask yourself, “Do I know for sure what’s right?” If the answer is, “I don’t think so,” then reflect on your inner experience: “Is this a situation that I have some feeling about that seems to be true, and is it important for me to bring my truth to bear?”
When Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter between the Vietnamese villagers and his fellow soldiers, I doubt that he was certain he was doing the right thing, although I think he knew he was risking a lot. His goal was to prevent more civilians from being killed, but they might have been killed anyway. His own helicopter could have gotten blown up, killing even more people, including himself and his crew. He didn’t know what was going to happen. He was operating from his sense that, “This is my truth. I think this is the right thing to do.” I don’t get the feeling from reading news accounts of Thompson’s actions that he was someone who thought, “I know I’m right.” He did not go on in life to become a pontificator, which he could have done. But in that fateful situation, his heart said, “Hey, this is wrong, and I’m going to stop this as best I can.” It didn’t require a lot of conceptualizing on his part.
It’s Not Easy: How hidden motives trip you up
So why is it so difficult to always do the right thing? First of all, you may be caught by unconscious motives. For example, you may think, “I’m a person who does the right thing,” Although it’s good to have the goal of doing the right thing, it’s not so skillful to start seeing yourself as someone who does the right thing. When you do, you are adding a step in the process. When you are faced with a difficult situation and you respond with your heart, that’s direct. But if you then think, “Oh, here’s the right thing to do,” and “I’m a person who does the right thing,” then you’re actually going roundabout. When you examine your life, you will see that this roundabout approach sometimes causes you to do the wrong thing, which then leads to a lot of suffering.
Another unconscious motive that can interfere with your ability to do the right is what I call “false martyrdom”, an attitude of “I’m going to do the right thing, and then everybody’s going to get mad at me for it.” False martyrdom is actually a form of ego-tripping. I’ve witnessed this particularly in the non-profit world among people who specialize in doing the right thing but who are in fact sabotaging the organization because they’re holding onto their position so firmly that it brings the group’s process to a halt. They’re not really participating in the group’s process of learning, growing, and changing. They’re just creating factions and alienating group members, which isn’t constructive at all.
Similarly, an attitude of always needing to be right can undermine your ability to do the right thing. This is one that I have struggled with a lot in my life because of the conditions of my childhood. It was very important to my sense of wellbeing and safety as a kid that I be right because I had to withstand situations in which there were people saying things that would have been disastrous for me had I accepted their advice. So I grew up committed to being right, and the downside of this became very clear to me as I went through my 20s and my 30s. I loved being right. I used to tell friends that I’d rather be right than win, and I was not very proud of that. But that was the condition I had to work with.
On the flip side of always needing to be right is believing that “I’m a person who always does the wrong thing.” There is no such person who always or even often does the wrong thing. Just like there’s no one who always or mostly does the right thing. This negative thinking creates a conceptual identity that is the result of memories and associations, which just gets in the way of doing the right thing. It’s helpful as a way of measuring yourself, but it’s not so useful in terms of responding skillfully to the moment that’s arising.
You can also stumble when what starts out as your heart’s motivation to do the right thing becomes an agenda. For instance, you might be doing the right thing because you think you know what’s best for somebody else, but out of self-righteousness or an attempt to force the right outcome, it becomes a campaign. When that happens you’ve lost touch with your heart’s sense of right thing to do and started to impose your view of the right thing on others.
You can also get caught in wanting to be rewarded for doing the right thing, which is not the same thing as doing it because it’s your intention. You may have become cynical about doing the right thing because you’ve done the right thing in the past and not gotten rewarded. But you’re not doing it for reward, you’re doing it as a way of being and as a way of practicing your intention.
When Hugh Thompson returned to the US and testified in the My Lai hearings, he was treated as though he was the guilty party by many of his peers. When he’d go to the officers’ club, the other soldiers would shun him. “I received death threats over the phone,” he told CBS News. “Dead animals on [my] porch some mornings when [I got] up, so I was not a ‘good guy.’” Thompson persisted in testifying though, which created more enemies for him. However, he did not become bitter over the way he was treated. As he told the Associated Press in 2004, “Don’t do the right thing looking for reward because it might not come.” This is a freeing realization. If there’s no reward, then you’re doing the right thing for the right reason. The real reward for doing the right thing is the right thing itself and what it feels like in the moment.
The Role of Cognitive Dissonance
In making a practice of doing the right thing, become aware of how cognitive dissonance can sometimes effect your actions. For instance, if you’re trying to do the right thing and there’s unpleasantness or a cost involved, notice if you don’t want to see your imperfections because it’s already hard enough. You need to feel you’re right so you can keep on doing it. It’s just human—we can’t handle the cognitive dissonance. We have to feel as though we’re on the side of “right,” and anything that would make us seem as though we’re in the wrong is too much dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance also comes into play when what I call your “tribal identity” conflicts with trying to do the right thing. Tribal identity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that it has costs, and one of those costs is that it sometimes makes it difficult to do the right thing. For example, what happens when someone in your organization does something wrong? Do you speak up, or do you go along because they’re part of your “team,” your “tribe”? How can you go against your own tribe? This is especially true in families. Within the family structure, you’re permitted to fight in a certain way, but there’s a boundary and if you go outside that boundary, you’ve violated the family. This has turned out to be a serious problem in relation to child abuse because within the family there’s a core belief not to tell, no matter how bad it is. And the children who are affected sense that. Therefore, they will participate in the denial, denying themselves the solutions and protection they need.
Another thing to notice as you practice your intention to do the right thing is when you are resistant to someone else doing the right thing. It may be because it’s going to mess up your life or a friend’s, or create dysfunction in your family or your organization. Sometimes you may find that you are the one who is in the wrong and someone else is doing the right thing, so you say to yourself that you’re going to fix it later on. You don’t want to fix it right now because you don’t want to hear this. Or you may notice yourself becoming resistant when someone who shares your values is accused of doing the wrong thing; you don’t want to hear it.
I’ve certainly felt this in relation to American soldiers fighting in Iraq. I don’t want our soldiers to have done the wrong thing because I’m “for” our soldiers. I feel the resistance in me, but I value the truth even more. So I tolerate the cognitive dissonance. Yes, I want our soldiers to be honored. Yes, I want our soldiers to be appreciated for what they’re doing. Whether or not I support the war, I support their actions because they’re just being soldiers. We’re all responsible for the war, no matter how we feel about it. It’s our war. So cognitive dissonance offers each of us a chance to practice.
The Cumulative Effects of Practice
Doing the right thing when it’s difficult has a cumulative effect over time because you let loose, at least in that moment, of the attachment to your own well-being, and you discover, “I survived that one!” It also increases the possibility of your doing the right thing again in the future.
I used Hugh Thompson as a dramatic example of someone who chose to do the right thing in a “big” moment, but for you it’s the “small” moments in life that give you the opportunity to practice your intention to do the right thing. So you do the right thing when you’re serving on a committee, or when you’re deciding how much of the housework you’re going to do, or when you’re putting up with a self-centered friend who’s getting on your nerves. Doing the right thing in these small ways is what builds the potential to do the right thing in big ways.