the Just World Hypothesis

I’m here to offer yet another plug for aging. Getting older can be so marvelous, because you start to see with clarity. (Not everyone; I’ve known some bitter, small, mean old people who became concentrated nuggets of ignorance.) But if you’re lucky — or whatever, however this works — you understand more and more. And the funniest thing is that your understanding gets simpler and simpler:


  • It’s all one thing.
  • You are who you are.
  • Life happens to everyone, and we all die.

I think it all boils down to that. Just because it’s so simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to talk about. And just because it’s so simple, that doesn’t mean you can just tell other people, younger people, what you have learned and suddenly they have the same complexity of understanding. For me, anyway, it has taken living my years to be able finally to see this.

Simple complexity, impossible to say clearly, but I’ll try, and I’ll start with a social psych principle called the Just World Hypothesis. It’s a more elaborated idea than this thumbnail, but basically it’s a deep belief that we get what we deserve. That if we’re good, good things will come to us. Bad people get what they deserve. Etc. It unfolds into a whole ethical landscape of implications, but at the center that’s what it is. Like me, I’m sure you’ve frequently heard people wail, “Why me???” And then they provide the list of explanations for why X shouldn’t have happened to them. If it’s a health thing, the list includes their health-related behaviors. If it’s an accident, the list includes the ways they are always so careful. If it’s about their child, the list includes the ways their child was innocent and they were watchful parents.

Undoubtedly because of my childhood, the fact that I was born to a couple who wanted to destroy everyone and everything, I was disabused of the belief in the just world. And one freezing night, in an alley on the wrong side of town in Wichita Falls, I thought through it very carefully and solidified my understanding: shit just happens. Life happens to everyone. In a larger way, it’s all random.

And it’s all one thing: Life happens to everyone. Why would we ever think, even for a second, that only “good” things will happen to us? (And yet we do: Shelley Taylor’s work showed that people don’t believe things like house fires, bad car wrecks, serious illness, etc., will happen to them in their futures; that we all believe we’re above average (leading another psychologist to dub this ‘the Lake Wobegone effect,’ when the law of averages alone proves that we cannot ALL be above average.)) We must believe that because of some deep, unexamined reliance on this just world hypothesis.

And so once again I have to leave space for the possibility that I was luckier than most people to have the childhood I had. That’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, or brave, chin-quivering denial, it’s an understanding of the way it’s all one thing. My life is a whole, the experiences I’ve had all along the way are so woven into the cloth of who I am that it’s impossible to pull out a warp thread, a weft thread. It’s impossible to sit here, in my chair at Heaventree, and even begin to entertain some fantasy of what it would’ve been like to have had a loving mother, a father who didn’t try to kill me. A safe home. Security. It’s impossible to do that, the entire cloth of me disintegrates and there could be no “me” sitting here to ponder that question.

Whenever I hear someone ask, “Why me?” my only thought is, “Why not you?” Of course I never ever say that, because at that moment the person asking the question needs compassion and help, and this fact of “why not you” is completely irrelevant. There may come a time in their process when it makes sense to gently talk about it, if it helps them realize that they aren’t being punished, or whatever they are thinking, but never at that first wailing.

But really. Why not you? Why not me? Life is just happening, and often we are just in the wrong place. A knot forms in an umbilical cord. A car veers into the oncoming lane. Cells take a left turn and start dividing wildly. Myelin disappears, plaques form, bones honeycomb. Unexamined parts of ourselves commit an act of sabotage or treason and we won’t recognize it for years. And as impossible as it is to grasp in the thick of it, it’s all of a piece and the landscape of your life, and yourself, are bigger and more vast and complex, and this is one warp or weft thread in your tapestry. When I was a child, of course I had no perspective to understand this, and I mean that literally: those experiences did not have the context of life that followed them, they were my endpoints at that time, and they represented the bulk of my life. Assuming we survive the terrible thing that happens, and have the good luck of living to put it in perspective, there are good things to be drawn from it; we are changed by it, and to some degree it’s up to us how we are changed by it (emotionally and psychologically, at least) (and I mean to some degree it’s up to us).

When my life fell apart at the end of 2012, I was coincidentally reading a book about trauma survivors (one of my favorite topics) called When You’re Falling, DiveI really recommend the book to everyone, because if you are a magical unicorn and nothing bad ever happens to you, then at least you are going to know all the rest of us to whom bad things will happen because we are not magical unicorns — so you can learn a few things to be present with us. I highlighted dozens of passages in the book, but I share these two with this post, and encourage you to click that link and get the book:

“Survival doesn’t really mean anything without acceptance,” John explains. “That’s the paradoxical part. You have to take the thing that’s wrong and own it. Make it into something that has meaning for you. If you try to hide or negate it, it will just eat you up,” he says. “If you’re hoping for things to be other than they are—constantly wondering how or why something happened, or how to fix it—you’re lost. You’ll completely miss out on the graceful time you have.

“When people are in need, you must be present. When people suffer, you must let them know you’re suffering with them.” “The good side of bad acts?” I say. “I would not say that from horror comes goodness. That would be giving horror too much credit. But goodness prevails in spite of horror.

I’m not in the midst of trials in my own life, at the moment, so I acknowledge that it can feel like “easy for her to say.” But if you’ve known me long, you know that I say this even when trials do come my way, and this is part of the clarity of understanding I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older. It’s all one thing — the “good” and the “bad,” who we are, how we live, and that we are who we are with that entire context in place. We came into the world exactly who we are and we live the life we live and it’s all one thing.

It’s fascinating to me how utterly complex simplicity is, but that it can still be simple. Something to ponder on a beautiful Friday, the first day of autumn. xoxoxoxo

terror magnification

magnifySo here’s the deal. You know what you’re going to do today, right? You’ve got the day planned out, mostly, and you’ve got a calendar with appointments for the week, maybe for the month. You’ve got those plans with friends over the weekend, and then the kids are coming home next month. You need to run to the mall, and there are big plans for the holidays this year.

And you’re just living your life, not hurting a soul! You’re a good person, you try to help when you can, people count on you, there would be a hole in the world if something happened to you. Maybe a giant hole, maybe a bigger hole than you even imagine.

So you take care! You look both ways before you cross the street, you try to eat well [enough] and get [enough] exercise. You avoid dangerous places, you keep an eye on your surroundings. You don’t go to the bad side of town alone at night, you avoid dangerous places in the world when you plan a vacation. You make sure your loved ones know that you love them. Now, though — and it was true before yesterday but the Boston bombings bring it back to our foreminds — we know there is no way to avoid dangerous places, because any place is a dangerous place. That’s the nature of terror, to make every place, every moment, potentially dangerous. We’re having to live with it though people around the world have lived with it every day for decades. Decades. Ordinary people, ordinary moms and kids, dads, students, young people, old people, markets and coffee shops, people just going about their business. Sheer horror.

I’m thinking not about the horror of the deaths and destruction, the lost legs and arms, the damage that might never be repaired, but I am thinking about living in a world where this happens. What is it we fear? Death, obviously. Being so wounded that we’re never the same again, that our lives have to change. Never knowing what to expect, never being able to just live without fear, never being able to live as if it’s all under our control. Living in an unfair world.

But aren’t those things already true? They are. It’s all true, even if there were no terrorists. However you want to organize it, life/the universe/whatever is kind of a terrorist. You can just be walking along and BAM! your brain explodes in a stroke and if you are lucky enough to survive, your whole life can be changed entirely — internal terrorism. You can just be walking along and a car can careen out of control and plow into a crowd on the sidewalk, maybe you die, maybe you are paralyzed, maybe you survive and your children die. Unfair, death, destruction, damage, unexpected, fear, no control. Unfair. Really, really unfair. If you think about the worst thing that has ever happened to you, it was probably unfair. Gracie’s death — unfair!! The things that were done to me as an innocent little child — unfair!! Really, really, really unfair. My friend’s major stroke, entirely unfair. Death, loss, unexpected, fear now in the wake, no control, unfair.

Terrorism adds the variable of intent, which somehow, to our minds, makes it all worse, makes the unfairness worse, makes the death and damage worse, makes the expectedness worse, makes the fear worse. But why? Why does it? Why should it? I think it just gives us a person or entity we can hope to punish, to exact revenge, and that gives us the illusion that the world is fair and that there is some control to be had. But we know this: the world is not fair, it rarely is (and when it is, it’s really just an accident), and there is only so much control to be had (and probably not as much as we like to think).

Terrorism magnifies the fact of ordinary life, bringing potential death and destruction to the forefront of our minds in a potent way. But what can you do to protect yourself? Look both ways. Avoid obviously dangerous places. Eat well and exercise. Keep loved ones close. Be sure the people you love know that you love them because you never know what might happen and this may be your chance.

So: I am grateful for you, I am grateful for my life, and I love you and it and every last bit of it, even a world in which this kind of thing can happen. Here’s an utterly gorgeous poem called “I Say Yes to All of It”:

everything that was broken yesterday
remains that way today

i have fixed what i can and the rest
is the life i have chosen

or sunk into
shoulder high

and i’ve yet to flail my hands

i am still
and silent

i was listening for something
for the longest time

and then i forgot how to speak

this isn’t mud i wallow in
but rather
the exquisite change pain of life

i no longer wait to be rescued

there are stars
or rain on my face

or blinding blue skies

crows chatter on the line
i used to talk through

there is a bluebird just now
warbling a love song

there is earth pressed tight
against my heart

winter ate me whole
and spring will spit me back out

this clay will all turn to dust
and my feet are already