Everyone gets what they deserve. Everything happens for a reason. The unfortunate must have done something to deserve their fate; inversely, those who experience good fortune must deserve it. Couch it in the reward-and-punishment terms of various monotheistic theologies, or in the concept of karma espoused by eastern religions, or in the "we create our own reality through our thoughts and energy" bromides one finds in New Age-y memes--or keep it purely secular and posit that the poor, unhealthy and powerless have brought it on themselves while the wealthy, healthy and powerful have undoubtedly earned their success. Each of these is another iteration of the Just World Hypothesis.
And today I was reminded, yet again, repeatedly and painfully, of why I don't believe in a Just World; why I never will be able to believe in it; why I believe the world would be much better off if everybody stopped believing in it.
I know--and have known--too many people who are suffering in ways they don't deserve. One of the many things I've learned from studying literature is to question whether this is so. I've also learned that compassion is usually a better path than judgment.
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Last fall as part of an early world lit course, I taught--as I have many times--"The Book of Job," I'm no theologian, so I apologize in advance to anyone who has a more theologically sophisticated understanding of this text than I do. I also apologize to those of you whose religious views differ from my own; I'm not asking you to understand it the same way I do. I'm an English professor, and I approached it as literature--as a story, in which one guy suffers way more loss and torture than any human being should have to endure.
Skirting over the whole question of why an omniscient God would agree to a bet with Satan in the first place, as a class we honed in on what happened when Job's so-called friends came to visit. Here's Job cursing the day he was born, and Eliphaz pops in to tell him, "Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?" (Job 4:7-8) Just what you always want when something's going terribly wrong: "It must be your fault. It's gotta be something you did."
And on and on it goes; Job wonders what he did to deserve this, he questions God, and he complains that there is no justice in the world. (If you've actually read this book, you know that the phrase "the patience of Job" makes about as much sense as calling Romeo and Juliet "a romantic story." Job isn't patient, and Romeo and Juliet end up dead.) While Job complains more and more vehemently, Eliphaz is joined by Bildad and Zophar and eventually Elihu, all of whom insist that the world, run as it is by a just God, is a fair and sensible place, and that Job's suffering must be his fault. To be suffering this much, he had to have done something wrong.
Our class turned this into a Twitter feed, complete with hashtags. "Job: I wish I'd never been born. #pityparty." "Eliphaz: You need to get over yourself. #godisjust." And so forth. Every single one of my students gave Job a hashtag that suggested less than full sympathy. In addition to #pityparty, we had #whiner, #firstworldproblems, #whyme. The "friends" got hashtags like #trustgod, #godisgood, and the inevitable #everythinghappensforareason.
I typed the students' "Twitter feeds" onto the computer, projected it, then asked the students to "play God," giving "thumbs up" to the posts they thought God would "like." Job's "comforters" fared well; Job, not so much. Whiner, they called him. (Never mind that he'd just lost all his children, his home, his livelihood and his health...who wants to listen to anyone whine?) After we explored the poetic yet puzzling Speech out of the Whirlwind--which I won't get into here--we read the epilogue, where God tells Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has."
Whoa, I said. Who just got the thumbs up from God? Guess it wasn't Eliphaz or his pals.
So I went back to the computer and began reversing all the "thumbs up" my students had given to the friends' tweets. Turns out it was Job the Whiner that God liked after all. Scratch all those friends' speeches--they weren't "speaking the truth" about God. Scratch "everything happens for a reason." My students looked crestfallen, and confused.
We spent the rest of the class period talking about compassion.
And no, compassion is not on the student learning outcomes, and our discussion that night may not specifically have prepared our students for the 21st century work force. As if work is all that we're here for. As if an education that touches on things that matter can be contained by a list of bullet-points.
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That night as I drove home, I remembered a long weekend five years earlier, when I flew to another town to spend a few days with a dear friend who had just been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer that had metastasized everywhere. I knew what this meant; I'd been through it with my father. It was past the time for a miracle. I didn't try to make sense of anything and I didn't try to ask "why." I already knew, from enduring too many losses already, that "why" is the wrong question to ask; at this stage the question becomes "how." How are we going to get through this?
That weekend, "how" included a lot of talking, sometimes about important things and sometimes not. It included listening to Rachmaninoff piano concertos, powerful pieces that express everything that reaches beyond words. "How" included watching Jane Austen movies and comparing Austen's characters to people we knew. For her, "how" included sleeping a lot, and when she did, I went for long walks or wrote in my journal. I didn't try to ask why. If there is a "why," we humans don't get to know. (That much, I did grasp from the Speech out of the Whirlwind.)
As our time together drew shorter, she thanked me for being the only person to have avoided asking "why." Her other visitors, she told me, thought they knew. Her traditionally religious friends told her this illness was due to her lack of faith and suggested she pray; there will be a miracle, all of which is part of God's plan. Her non-religious "hippie" friends wondered whether she'd eaten wrong or held on to "negative thought patterns"; they wanted her to give up meat, try some kind of herbal supplement, meditate, whatever else. She was that open-minded kind of person who accepted people as they are and consequently had friends from many walks of life, so her friends' suggested "solutions" varied. Yet they all touched on the same theme: You must have done something. And, Maybe there's still time to fix it, if you do the right things now.
Same thing I got when my dad was dying. I lost track of the number of people who asked me, "So your dad got brain cancer? What did he do?"
"Nothing," I'd say, and then I'd get the grilling, "Well, he must have eaten something..." "He didn't work out..." "His faith was weak..." Eliphaz. Bildad. Zophar. God gives you all a thumbs down.
The last night, we said goodnight and hugged, and my friend went to bed. My taxi for the airport arrived at four in the morning, and I was grateful for the darkness. We spoke by phone every day for the next two weeks, and once she told me, "Thank you for not trying to make any sense out of all this." Her last words to me, a few hours before she died, were: "I have to go now."
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Andre and Velasquez say, "If the belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe and its capriciousness, it would not be a matter of great concern for ethicists or social scientists. But Lerner's Just World Hypothesis, if correct, has significant social implications. The belief in a just world may undermine a commitment to justice." (Emphasis mine- read the article HERE,) What are the consequences if we continue to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, and no one gets what they don't deserve? Of course it's not very nice to suggest to dying people that they brought misfortune on themselves through bad living. But are there potential consequences to the Just World Hypothesis that are even more serious?
Today, as I reeled from still more evidence that the Just World Hypothesis is wishful thinking, I walked down the street outside my office, heavily populated by the down-and-out among us: homeless people, poor people, folks struggling with physical disabilities and apparent mental illnesses. So many of the forces around us say, "They must have done something to deserve it."
Maybe they didn't.
But if we start questioning that, we might start questioning a whole lot of things. We might have to change a lot of things about the way we've organized the world. Asking why people suffer might be an un-answerable question, but there are other questions we might ask. Why do we so often want to blame victims? Why do we so desperately want to believe "everyone gets what they deserve"? What would happen if we stopped doing that?
Perhaps it's no coincidence that some of the powers-that-be would prefer to limit education to what can be contained in bullet-point "learning outcomes."