Every parent has heard a child say, “That’s not fair.” It is as though children monitor their world to ensure that it is just. Of course, most parents have responded to their children’s complaints with the words, “The world is not fair.” But we behave as if we don’t really believe what we say. Whenever something unfair happens to us, we feel surprised, shocked, or enraged. If we truly believed the world was unfair, would we be so surprised when an injustice happened to us? And we all face personal injustice. Whether it is the discovery of a lump, the death of a friend, or betrayal by a loved one – eventually it happens to us.
Typically when we face injustice, our emotions follow a pattern: First we feel outraged and out of control. Then the emotions give way to a sense of powerlessness or helplessness. Often nurtured by well-meaning friends, we find someone to blame for our suffering and rail against either the injustice or the perpetrator. Often we feel a sense of righteous indignation and victimization. It’s like wearing a threadbare coat in the winter: It doesn’t keep us warm but it might be all we have.
When two people, whom I will call Joseph and Marge to protect their real identities, first came to see me last year, their 20-year marriage was in bad shape. Marge had recently admitted to having an affair. Joseph was hurt and furious. He was angry not only about the affair but because his wife had been emotionally absent for many years and also had been deceitful about her whereabouts. Marge defended herself, complaining that Joseph was so controlling that if she’d collaborated in this marriage she would have suffocated. She argued that he never really cared about her as a person.
And they fought. Sometimes they fought to have their point of view – their story – heard and sometimes they fought for revenge. Both thought they had been treated unfairly by their partner and could not live with the injustice.
When I asked Joseph and Marge why they were fighting, they had ready answers.
They said they were fighting because they were injured and because their partner hurt them. But when I asked them what they are fighting for, I got blank expressions.
I knew what they were fighting for. They were fighting for justice – for fairness. Ultimately what they want is an end to their suffering, and they think fighting for fairness will accomplish that goal. It won’t. It won’t because if one of them does win, one has to lose, and the relationship is still unjust.
I believe the pursuit of justice in domestic conflicts rarely leads to an end of suffering and discovery of happiness. There are exceptions, of course. If a relationship is violent or otherwise dangerous, safety must be the first priority. But fighting for fairness usually does not achieve the result we want.
So what do we do?
If the pursuit of justice on our own behalf rarely leads to happiness, perhaps the pursuit of social justice – for others – will help.
More often than not, personal justice is a demand of the ego. The ego says, “You hurt me or shamed me.” It is the ego that is wounded when we feel powerless or impotent. When the ego is making these demands, all we can do is think of ourselves. And the more we think of ourselves, the more we focus on our suffering. Sometimes psychotherapy can help us get unstuck. And sometimes psychotherapy can make things worse – it can get us even more self-absorbed.
The pursuit of justice for others can help quiet the ego. The pursuit of social justice begins with a commitment to devote personal resources to one of many of the world’s injustices. For example, devote time and energy to foster justice for all of the children in the Middle East whose hearts are filled with hatred and fear and have little hope for their future. Or make a commitment to do something about animals being tortured by cosmetic companies or children hungry in Camden or the single mother with a handicapped child in your own neighborhood. Be a Big Brother/Big Sister, help cook for a program that feeds the homeless, get more involved in a political party or a social action group in your religious organization.
Or you could start even closer to home: Imagine yourself in the shoes of the people you care about – even the one you might be furious with – and let your anger at the injustices inflicted upon them by the world drive your pursuit of social justice.
In the process of working to reduce the suffering of others, you will find that it also diminishes your own suffering. Social justice is about helping the world – and not at the expense of someone else.
The act of compassion itself raises endorphins, one of the body’s natural antidepressants. Helping other beings is one of the most effective ways of combating alienation, which is endemic in our society today. It does so by exposing our selves to the larger world and introducing us to a range of people who are also committed to making the world better.
In a recent column about the effects of breast cancer on children, I met several young people who were volunteering at an agency that helped their family get through the ordeal. These are children who know they are making a positive contribution to the world. Nothing helps genuine self-esteem more than that. These children are also learning about suffering, compassion, and life’s priorities.
A single mother told me that, during her family’s summer vacation, one day a week will be called “family day.” She and her sons will devote that day to helping a community agency. Her boys are learning what it means to be part of this world – and what it means to be family.
Things didn’t work out so well for Joseph and Marge. Eventually, they contacted attorneys and went through a very bitter and painful divorce. In their continued pursuit of fairness or justice, they never got beyond their own wounded egos. Both are now trying to reclaim their lives and recover from this painful experience.
Ultimately, we all want peace and happiness. Sometimes, when we devote our energy to helping others find that happiness, we can find our own.