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

4 thoughts on “the Just World Hypothesis”

  1. This is perfect. I’m going to share it, if that’s all right with you. I grew up wondering why I was so unfortunate to have been born into an unhappy family, and spent far too much time wishing I were somewhere else, someone else. It took me a few years to learn to like myself and to know that all I was depended on all I’d been through, all I’d come from. Life is life. Period. You find such peace when you realize that and stop railing against all the unfair things that happen to you and to everyone else on the planet.

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