Do you believe in a just world?
Some people end up in a therapist’s office because an unexpected negative event happened in their lives that they were thoroughly unprepared for and it led them to feel like the rug had been pulled out from under them. Maybe they got laid off from a job without warning; maybe someone complained about them professionally or worse still, charged them with a crime they did not commit; maybe a partner dumped them without warning; maybe an unexpected law suit landed at their door; maybe they became seriously ill; or maybe they just got so overextended at work that they ended up totally burnt out. The comment that I often hear from people faced with such situations is: ” I really thought that if I was a good person; that if I worked hard, followed the rules and was honest, that things would work out for me. What happened? Why me?”
Many of us don’t realize it until some unfair misfortune happens to us but we are inclined to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable and just place where people get what they deserve. That is, we tend to believe that noble actions are eventually rewarded and evil actions eventually punished. This commonly held (often unconscious) belief has been referred to by social psychologists as the “just-world hypothesis”. It makes sense that we would want to believe in a just world as it gives us a sense of control and security to think that we can influence what happens to us in predictable ways. We want to believe that if we do good that good will come to us. Moreover, to justify this belief that life is morally fair and that consequences are fitting, we also tend to go so far as to tell ourselves that when misfortune happens, the person must have deserved it. Such thinking can easily result in blaming the victim. Perhaps the most striking example of desperately clinging to the belief in cosmic justice at any cost is the rationalization that the rape victim must have been asking for it. Otherwise, how scary is it to have to face that your wife, your daughter, your mother are all at risk of the same traumatic event happening to them no matter what precautions they may take?
It is often just a matter of time and life experience before life teaches us that such cause and effect does not match reality. Just because someone has been accused of immoral or unethical behavior does not mean that they necessarily did anything wrong. Similarly, just because you work hard and play fair does not mean that everybody is going to play fair with you. As Rabbi Harold Kushner tells us in his book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, we only co-create our universe. Yes, by all means we influence how our lives unfold. However, random acts of misfortune also happen. In his own case, his three-year-old son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease causing him to age prematurely and die in his early teens. What Kushner tells us is that rather than seeing events that happen to us as necessarily a result of our goodness or badness, we need to realize that lightening can strike anywhere and that the true measure of our worth actually shows itself not in what happens to us but in how we cope when bad things happen to us. This is where therapy can be invaluable. As a facilitator of people’s growth, I thoroughly believe that breakdown can be break through. I have seen again and again how people who have been the victim of misfortune with guidance and support can turn that negative into a positive by learning to cope in a way that makes them stronger for it. I am not trying to sugar coat things here. There is no question about it. Shit happens. When it does, though, the nicest thing you can do is turn it into fertilizer! I had a mentor once who called this phenomenon of turning misfortune into opportunity, “white magic”. Needless to say, she taught me a whole lot.