Guest Post: Is the World Just? Addressing Barriers to Compassion
By Veronika Tait
Growing up, I falsely heard that people with dark skin were fence-sitters in the pre-existence. That is, as spirits before birth, I was taught that dark-skinned people were not as committed to God’s plan as fair-skinned people and therefore would suffer more on earth. I now understand how racist and harmful that thinking is.
The Just-World Phenomenon
As a child, I saw the world in simplistic terms. There were dichotomies of good or bad. Righteous or wicked. I believed that people got what they deserved. If you were righteous, you were blessed, spiritually, financially, etc., and if you were struggling in life, it was probably because you were unrighteous. It was your fault. I heard frequent talk of the second coming of Jesus Christ, a reminder that the wicked would be burned. Seeing natural disasters as a child I wondered, What bad things did those people do?
This karma-type thinking is what psychologists call the just-world phenomenon or just-world fallacy. This is the idea that those who are on top of the social ladder, those with money, power, and influence, see the world as just. Those in the middle think the world is somewhat just, and those at the bottom believe the world is unjust. I didn’t question the explanation that black people were less invested in God’s plan before we came to earth because I wasn’t negatively affected by that belief.
It is harmful to believe that the world is perfectly just and can lead to victim-blaming. After learning about the Holocaust, one man referenced in the text Psychology said, “What terrible criminals these prisoners must have been to receive such treatment” (Psychology, 12th Edition, Myers and DeWall, p. 503). He assumed the world was just, which led him to blame the victim rather than the offenders.
As I learn more about this phenomenon, I see my own privilege more clearly. Just as I feel I don’t always deserve my hardships, I’ve come to see many of my own blessings as a matter of chance. I did not earn my way to a childhood in a safe neighborhood with clean water. I did nothing to deserve a home with soft mattresses, working toilets, or a solid roof.
While I believe that following in the Savior’s footsteps leads to blessings from our Heavenly Parents, I cannot assume that someone’s circumstance informs me of their level of righteousness. As Jeffery R. Holland said,
I openly acknowledge the unearned, undeserved, unending blessings in my life, both temporal and spiritual. Like you, I have had to worry about finances on occasion, but I have never been poor, nor do I even know how the poor feel. Furthermore, I do not know all the reasons why the circumstances of birth, health, education, and economic opportunities vary so widely here in mortality, but when I see the want among so many, I do know that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I also know that although I may not be my brother’s keeper, I am my brother’s brother, and “because I have been given much, I too must give.”
If one of the Lord’s twelve apostles has undeserved blessings, I certainly do.
The Purpose of Struggle
If hardship in our life is not always an indication of a bad choice on our part, what then is the purpose of adversity? In one of his books on motivation, psychologist Dan Ariely highlights how struggle breeds empathy. Ariely burned over 70% of his body during an accident as a teenager. He endured incredible pain for years including surgeries and skin treatments. Several years after the accident, he heard from a distraught mother whose two sons were badly burned in a car crash. One had passed away, but the mother wanted Ariely to give advice to her teenage son who was still enduring unspeakable agony at the hospital.
Ariely didn’t know what to do. Remembering his own experience caused him to relive the trauma all over again. Entering the hospital was triggering. Giving words of encouragement felt empty.
He decided that despite the horrors that came from reflecting on his experience, he would do his best to help the boy. The teen’s mother told Ariely how meaningful his letters and visits were to her son, and they have been corresponding ever since. Though Ariely wasn’t necessarily experiencing “happiness” in helping the burned boy, he did it anyway.
I achieved a complex but unique emotional lift that stemmed from shared pain. I became motivated by a feeling of identification and empathy for them. I felt that my own suffering had not been pointless. And that I could do something to help other human beings—something that I’m uniquely qualified to do.
This story emphasizes the upside of trials, though I don’t advocate actively seeking them. When we go through hard things, we become better equipped to empathize with the perspective of others who struggle, and our compassion grows.
The Savior’s Ultimate Empathy
It is no wonder that in order for our Savior to complete the atonement, he endured every burden we have ever been asked to carry. As Neal L. Maxwell said, “[Jesus] did this in order that He might be filled with perfect, personal mercy and empathy and thereby know how to succor us in our infirmities. He thus fully comprehends human suffering.”
We cannot be an advocate for another without first feeling empathy and compassion for them. When we remember that the world does not always justly impart deserved hardships, we are better able to heed the words of King Benjamin,
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent. . . . For behold, are we not all beggars? (Mosiah 4:17-19)
When we let go of our desire to sum-up one’s righteousness by their circumstance, we also let go of any conditions a person must meet before they receive our compassion. Rather than making compassion conditional on the actions or circumstances of the recipient, true compassion is conditional on what the giver can give. After all, we are called to love fully and deeply, across lines of difference, as Christ did. We are called to show radical compassion to others, particularly those born into socially marginalized groups, as Christ did. We are called to break down barriers of race, class, and gender and work to make the world more just, as Christ did. In living lives of true compassion, we live up to God’s vision of who we can and should be in the world.
Veronika Tait is a social psychologist, adjunct professor, and blogger for Psychology Today found at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pulling-through.