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Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

It’s a Just World (Not at All?)

I was talking recently with someone who’d received unexpected negative news in relation to their employment. As I spoke with the person, there was a distress evident in the sense that the person could not link up how, after giving so much effort and care to what they were doing, they were still experiencing loss and frustration. I had a hard time knowing what to say in response, because to me the connection between effort and outcome has always been extremely tenuous at best. In other words, I was confused as to why they thought meeting a high standard meant they were going to receive a positive outcome. I live out this principle on a daily basis—I try hard in life—but I do not actually believe in it at my core.

The name for the belief that effort and outcome are strongly linked, especially in relation to morality, is the Just World Hypothesis. In this worldview, good things happen to good people and, if your life sucks, it’s probably your fault. There is a convenient absence of digging into systemic oppression and undue privilege; here, we’re all born on 1st base and the distance we make it in life is solely dependent upon how true and hardworking we are as a person.

A related phenomena is the Law of Attraction. With this philosophy, what happens to us is believed to be the result of our intentions. Some core concepts include: 1) think good things, and that’s what you’ll get, 2) unhappy people bring their own misery, 3) do not speak of hope, speak of actuality even though it is not yet your reality.

We will explore these psychological biases in for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. For trauma survivors, I wonder if the Just World and Law of Attraction are more easily perceived as the shams they are, given how quickly and thoroughly we tend to be taught by life that, despite all our efforts, we can be harmed and, no matter how tightly we control our thinking, it can happen again. At the same time, because of the compulsion to repeat our traumas, we may find ourselves trying to resolve our core dilemmas by thinking “this time” we’ll get it right if we just keep trying. Please feel free to share your perspective on how this plays out for you as a trauma survivor in the comments!

Where I’ve personally run into the most problems is in relating to people who buy into one or both of these “theologies,” as it is typically very challenging for them to show empathy. I was once told that perhaps I’d “signed up” for the abuse I experienced before I was born. I’ve also encountered many people who can’t handle acknowledging that anyone has abused as a child as it seems too “unfair.”

To quote Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s, “life is hard.” It is groundlessness and mist, but we insist the shaking soil of our current state must become marble. Believing that the world is an unfair place where no amount of mental sanitation can cure all ills does not make me feel hopeless. Rather, in allowing myself truth instead of denial, I feel more ready to roll up my sleeves and try to fix it up my little corner of things as best I can in the time I have. It is when we insist that everyone gets their dues and that hoping equals outcome that we stifle and avert-eye ourselves into a narrow corridor from which there is little recourse, when, as happens in nearly every life, SHTF and we have to deal.

I find it more challenging when I try to extend this philosophy to relating to others who are going through difficult times. The best approach I’ve been able to muster is to 1) ask them how I can be there for them and 2) identify and share the feelings I have in hearing their story in a way that empathizes with their plight and 3) if possible, become involved in dismantling the systems of injustice that are contributing to their difficulties. In relation to sharing my feelings, I typically find that, in response to unjust and depressing circumstances with which others are dealing in their personal lives, I feel helpless. I share this with them at times, not to center myself, but to let them know that I perceive the injustice and wish to right it, but that, if it is of an interpersonal nature, there is little I can do directly to rectify it. For instance, if a friend is having a conflict with a romantic partner, it is not my place to step in the middle of this.

I desire to integrate a more active response to situations where there are institutional and systemic injustices. I have little experience IRL with encountering others who openly name these injustices, and, when I look back on the few experiences I have had, I’ve failed miserably. Rather than responding to these instances from a state of helplessness, I now plan to act in solidarity by contributing to social justice causes. Our world can become more just and our perceptions brighter only through dedicated action in which those who have been systemically wronged are able to take the lead in seeking justice and when privilege, where it exists, is leveraged in order to disrupt the power structures that keep many people marginalized and oppressed.

What is your take on the idea of a “Just World” and the “Law of Attraction?” In what ways do you see these concepts being used to undermine social justice causes? How do you respond to those around you who are going through difficulties over which they have little control?