AS MANY OF YOU PROBABLY ALREADY KNOW, Dune by Frank Herbert (and the three sequels) is one of my favorite books of all time. It has a lot of stuff going on that’s worth loving (and a few problematic things but that’s for another conversation), but one of the main things that drew me to it was the over-aching idea of fate and the destruction of a predetermined future.
I’ve always had a difficult time with the idea of fate. I don’t want to believe in it, just like I don’t want to believe that there are angels and demons out there fighting to influence us so they can claim possession over our souls. The idea that there is any force out there, any kind of pre-destiny that we cannot escape, has always rubbed me the wrong way (I am anti-authoritarian to the bone). So when something unpleasant happens and people say “everything happens for a reason,” I alway bristle. I appreciate the good intentions of a remark like that (“everything will work out my friend!”), but it implies fate. It implies someone has a plan for me that I’m not privy to, and I don’t like that.
However, as I’ve gotten older and realized exactly what it means if there is no plan, I’ve often found myself wishing there was a reason for everything. It’s difficult to experience bad things without believing that there’s a reason those things happened. It’s difficult to watch the news and see the state of our world and not hope there is a plan that requires all this suffering.
If some universal force is not the cause of our pain, then who/what is?
Are we, maybe, responsible of the suffering that comes into our own lives?
Some schools of thought would say yes. Maybe you sucked in a past life. Maybe there are “lessons” you came here to learn. Maybe you are being punished for a lie you told in second grade. But concepts of “cause” and of “responsibility” are vast and complex notions, especially when we incorporate spiritual and metaphysical philosophies into potential definitions.
Recently, I was reflecting on some emotional responses I was having that didn’t sit well with me: feeling frustration when I “should” have felt compassion, or irritation when I “should” have felt empathy (and then shame at my own “inappropriate” response). This isn’t the first time I’ve had these reactions to unpleasant news, it was just the first time I’d been in a stable enough place to actually acknowledge my reaction instead of burying it.
One thing I’ve dicovered over my years of learning to be kind to myself is that I’m probably not the first person to experience something disturbing in my own head, so I Googled around a bit. I came up with something that not only explains my inner conflict with “everything happens for a reason,” but also explains why my initial reaction to other people’s bad news is sometimes less compassionate than I would like: it’s called the “just-world hypothesis,” or more accurately the “just-world fallacy,” and it’s something that many humans unconsciously opperate under because we want to believe we have some semblance of control over what happens to us.
The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of cosmic justice, destiny, divine providence, […] or order, and has high potential to result in fallacy, especially when used to rationalize people’s misfortune on the grounds that they “deserve” it.
More from Wikipedia because why waste time paraphrasing:
[Melvin J.] Lerner presents the belief in a just world as functional: it maintains the idea that one can influence the world in a predictable way. Belief in a just world functions as a sort of “contract” with the world regarding the consequences of behavior. This allows people to plan for the future and engage in effective, goal-driven behavior. […]
Lerner hypothesized that the belief in a just world is crucially important for people to maintain for their own well-being. But people are confronted daily with evidence that the world is not just: people suffer without apparent cause. Lerner explained that people use strategies to eliminate threats to their belief in a just world. These strategies can be rational or irrational. Rational strategies include accepting the reality of injustice, trying to prevent injustice or provide restitution, and accepting one’s own limitations. Non-rational strategies include denial, withdrawal, and reinterpretation of the event.
Does…does this sound familiar?
Does this sound like…victim-blaming?
When I feel frustrated upon hearing someone else’s bad news, it isn’t because I’m a heartless monster (I hope). It’s because my (perhaps unhealthy) response to sadness is almost always to fight it/problem solve it/try to figure out a way to not have to experience that emotion. I try to find a way to explain why it happened to that other person, so that way I know how to prevent it from happening to me. (Spoiler alert: I’m not the only one with unhealthy coping mechanisms like this.)
But that doesn’t work! For sure, we are responsible for our actions. If you drink and drive and get into an accident, ya better believe I’m going to think you had that coming. But believing in a just world is a sure way to drive yourself crazy if you are the person who gets hit by a drunk driver. You can do everything good and right in your life and it won’t stop bad things from happening to you, or to those around you.
Belief in a just world is a way to trick yourself into believing you have some control over things you actually have no control over, and when you eventually realize how little control you have, that’s a recipe for psychological disaster (hello my nervous breakdown in 2013).
But in the mean time, it makes you kind of a shitty person, too. If you subscribe to the just-world theory, then how can you find compassion for your neighbor who has fallen on hard times? How can you be there to support a friend through a conflict if at the same time you’re thinking “well if you had just done this thing none of this would have happened”? I know I wouldn’t want you in my corner.
Now, I’m not here to say what is and isn’t true about the divinity and the nature of the Universe. I have no access to the major truths about God/dess or fate or divine plans. All I know is that belief, even if unconscious, in a just world has made me feel very uncomfortable with my own reactions to things, even while it may, at times, also make me feel safe. But a wise person who I can’t remember (someone on Facebook maybe? Or Twitter?) once said that our knee-jerk reactions are a result of our conditioning, and it’s how we react to our reaction that demonstrates our authentic feelings.
So, that’s a bit of a comfort to know I’m not a horrible human being for occasionally trying to justify why bad things happen to good people: I’m really just trying to assure myself it’s not going to happen to me…which is also kind of sad, but understandable. Living life requires a pinch of magical thinking, anyway–how else does anyone step outside of their home each day without some amount of unfounded faith that if they are responsible enough and do things correctly they will probably not have great misfortune befall them on their way to work/school/etc?
(This whole topic also makes me want to talk about mindfulness, but that’s for another post.)
Anyway, hope I’m not an actual sociopath and y’all are about to tell me how vile I am.