Fairness and the Need to Repair the World

A pot boils on the stove, like emotions that cause us to harm one another and create unfairness

It’s All the Same

In my work as a chaplain, I often meet with patients who are suffering. Many are trying to come to terms with a sudden, debilitating illness. Young parents dying of cancer wonder how they will bear to leave their families. Homeless patients, still convalescing, end up back on the streets, scrabbling for assistance that can’t be found. Over and over, people tell me that it isn’t fair.

They’re right, of course. Everyone knows life isn’t fair. So we invent stories to ease our pain. There’s a reason this happened, we might tell ourselves. We need to learn something, or God has something better in store for us that couldn’t unfold if this tragedy didn’t occur first. Images of heaven and eternal bliss soothe us.

But if we can count on endless happiness after we die, does it matter whether we live two years or ninety? Should we not rejoice when a loved one leaves the toil of this life? Besides, in the blink of God’s eye, we, too, will be dead and rejoin our beloved. Can’t we be patient?

Even if we don’t use heaven as a balm, life is what it is, as they say. In the present moment, where past and future do not exist, there can be acceptance. Besides, no matter what happens when we slip into that endless non-existence, life is but a blip. One breath or ten thousand, difficult or not, it’s all the same in a universe where time never ends and the present moment is all that exists.

Accepting Nature’s Unfairness

Grief might not be rational, but when we experience loss, our anguish will not go away until we face it. We can tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel sad, but our feelings don’t care what our mind thinks. To protect ourselves from the intensity of our pain, we might choose to cover it up with worry or substances or overwork. Still, the grief lingers, and in those quiet moments when our guard is down, it will find us. If we retire or we get clean and sober, our grief will demand attention.

For many people, part of grief is the anger that arises when life is not fair. Of course, death is not the only thing that hurts us, not the only thing that is unfair. Why do some live in ease and comfort, joyful and content for many years, while others experience almost constant hardship?

We know life is unfair. Rain falls on everyone. Natural disasters and illness strike us all. Like the coronavirus that will sicken us whether we believe in it or not, or the tsunami that can wash away everything we love even if God is on our side, life does what it does regardless of how we feel about it.

Admittedly, these misfortunes do not affect us all the same. Some people are struck with overwhelming loss, while others never have to deal with unpleasant surprises. That discrepancy can be irksome. But overall, when nature deals us blows, we understand that they are part of life, and we move on.

The Unfairness that Outrages

If an entire school collapses during an earthquake, however, killing most of the children and teachers inside, and if that school was destroyed because, being in a poor neighborhood, perhaps a black one, where those who had money withheld it from those who needed support, we see an injustice. This makes most of us angry. Similarly, the smog in India that I mentioned in last week’s column, though it impacts everyone’s health, harms the poor more than the wealthy, because the poor have few ways to escape or filter the air.

Is it fair that the poor suffer so much? Of course not. Yet simply because few resources are available to them, they are forced to live in the filth of those who dump on them.

These are just two examples of the ways we humans make life unfair for those around us. Power corrupts, and wealth can lure us like an addiction, so those in positions of leadership often fail the poor. In this way, unfairness is brought about by human hands. Do we not feel outrage at that?

Two Sides to Outrage

Outrage has its constructive side. It binds us together around a common problem, motivating us to protest and demand equal rights for everyone. Especially when we focus our ire on systems and institutions rather than individuals, when we seek non-violent solutions that consider the good of everyone, outrage can create long-lasting, positive change. [1]

When we censure individuals, however, calling them out for their isms, for example, we might feel morally superior, but our words can do more harm than good. Public shaming has a long history, being used to maintain social norms and reinforce boundaries. [2] It is most useful, however, when we temper our anger and provide a vehicle for restoration. Especially now, with our big cities and online communities, an individual once shamed has no way to return to the community. Healing becomes impossible.

In their research about online expressions of outrage, Takuya Sawaoka and Benoît Monin discovered that we tend to feel sympathy for those who are censured, especially when harsh responses pile up. Although we might consider a joke or statement to be offensive, we don’t like seeing perpetrators hounded. [3] On some level, we understand that such outrage does not help.

So how do we let people know when they have made mistakes and been insensitive? Perhaps if we spoke of our feelings and welcomed honest reflection rather than pointing our finger at the other, we could create the opportunity for dialogue. But we have to be open to hearing things we don’t necessarily agree with.

A pot boils on the stove, like emotions that cause us to harm one another and create unfairness
Photo by InSaif Ali

Unintended Consequences

This can be difficult. Few of us were taught, as children, to communicate effectively. We understand how to blame others, to chastise them, to defend ourselves. The alternative, being open and vulnerable, is harder. How many of us is willing to consider the possibility that the person who spoke harshly is not evil, that the thoughtless thing he did or said is not the totality of who he is? To do so would require that we acknowledge we might not be so righteous, after all.

If we’re marginalized, it means imaging we might not always be right. We might always be the injured party. If we’re not marginalized, at least not in the way being discussed at the moment, we can stop trying to be the hero. We don’t have to prove anything. We just have to listen and let the other’s words touch our hearts.

Helping is important. If we’re part of the solution, we’re less likely to be part of the problem. On the other hand, helping is complicated. Our pride often gets in the way. Instead of considering what is best in the situation or listening to what others ask of us, we may jump in with our own ideas. Then, when we are then met with resistance, we feel outraged ourselves. Besides, good deeds often have unintended consequences. We can see this in a story told by Martin Buber.

The Angel Sees Suffering

As the story began, God had just unleashed a torrent of destruction on the Earth. A young angel looked down from heaven at the suffering this caused, at the endless cycle of pain and sickness humans and animals endured, and he grew restless, perplexed, distressed. Why, he wanted to know, must there be such misery?

Probably the angel would not have dared to ask God directly, but God noticed the angel’s unhappiness and invited him to come before the angelic court and unburden himself. Though the angel hesitated, God was so gentle and kind, that finally the youngster spoke about the horror he’d seen.

“Please,” he cried out, “let me run things on Earth, just for a year. I will bring to the land a time of peace and well-being. Everything will be wonderful.”

A tremor of fear spread through the court, but God only showered the young angel with love. So it shall be, God decreed. For a year, the angel would rule.

So it was that the angel brought to humans a year of happiness and ease. With his merciful heart, he fed the hungry, soothed the sick, saved the lives of the dying, made the crops grow in abundance. The harvest was so plentiful, the storerooms filled to bursting. It was a wonderful sight, and the angel was proud of what he had done.

All Is Not As It Seems

A few weeks later, though, as the first snows began to fall, the angel heard wails of misery rising from the homes of those he had so recently blessed. Frightened and confused, he drew over himself the guise of a traveler and went to see what was wrong. He discovered that the people, having threshed and milled the grain, having baked the flour into bread, discovered that it fell apart in their hands and tasted terrible, like clay. Weeping and rending their clothes, they cursed the god who had deceived them by this great harvest that, after all, yielded so little.

Distraught, the angel flew up to where God sat on his throne. “My Lord,” he cried out, “explain to me what happened. I don’t understand what I did wrong.”

God answered that there was a truth too terrible for an innocent such as the young angel to understand. To get an inkling of it, he would have to live for years yet. What was that truth? As Buber wrote, it was “that the Earth must be nourished with putrefaction and covered with shadows that its seeds may bring forth . . . and souls must be made fertile with flood and sorrow, that through them the Great Work may be born.” [4]

Tikkun Olam

We know that roots can only grow in the darkness and that compost formed from putrefaction makes great fertilizer. But why do we need “flood and sorrow,” and what is the “Great Work” we are to give birth to?

Buber was Jewish, with a fondness for the teachings of the Hassidic leader, the Baal Shem Tov. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, derived from the Kabbalist leader Yitzchak Luria, was about tikkun olam. The Hebrew term means to repair the world, or fix it up, make it better.

But tikkun olam does not imply that the world is broken. The world is good. Inside everything lies a spark of the divine. Unfortunately, that spark gets buried deep within us, so we don’t notice it. We don’t see it in ourselves, and we don’t see it in others. Blind to the divinity all around us, we seek satisfaction in things that are not divine, like money and power, and we hurt one another.

Our work is to bring the divine spark in every person out into the light, where it can be seen and where it can thrive. Each of us has our own unique way to do this, so no one can tell us exactly what that means for us. One thing we know not to do, though, is try to make everything pretty and happy. We’re not supposed to seal every fissure, resolve every quarrel, undo every mistake, make just every injustice. The angel tried that, and it didn’t work.

The Angel’s Mistake

There are a few reasons why not. First, humans need to be free to make their own choices. For the cycle of life to continue, there must be illness and death. Yet the angel didn’t believe that. Instead, he thought he could do a better job running the world than could God himself.

In this, we see hubris. Behind such egoism lies what Palmer calls “a destructive impulse.” [5] Often hidden beneath our desire to do good, this is the part of us that needs approval and praise, that wants to be seen as righteous and self-sacrificing. In our attempt to prove ourselves, we forget to look at the people we are trying to help.

That was perhaps the angel’s biggest mistake. Instead of walking beside the humans who were suffering, he looked down on them from on high. As Palmer points, because he kept himself at a distance, he could not feel the compassion that is a necessary part of effective helping. [6] The angel may have felt outrage, an intellectual conviction that suffering is wrong, but he never entered into the people’s pain. Thus, he didn’t understand them and couldn’t know what they needed. Too much of our public policy is based on such outside observations, which is why the solutions we come up with to fix other people’s problems often do not turn out well.

The Divine Spark Within Us

Eventually, though, the angel did go down to Earth. He entered people’s homes, heard their stories, experienced their anguished cries. Though he didn’t understand why things had turned out so badly, he accepted that he had done a terrible thing. He had upset the balance of the universe. The angel had begun to grow up.

By the end of the story, however, the angel still hadn’t learned the most important lesson. Consider why God let the angel try to make the world better. He could have chastised him, warned him, refused him the power to control nature. Yet he didn’t. Instead, he approved. With great love, God honored the angel’s impulse to improve human life. He saw the pride within the angel’s heart, the confusion and naïveté. He knew it would not turn out well. Surely it wasn’t fair to the Earth and the creatures living on it to put a novice in charge.

But life isn’t fair. It can’t be fair, because if there is to be freedom, there must be chance, and with chance comes the reality that some are born to joy, and some to woe. Buber’s God must allow this. Yet in the story, God loves the angel, and not just because he sees the divine spark in everything. God also loves the angel because of the young one’s longing for goodness and justice. The spark inside the angel glowed fiercely, and that in itself was wonderful.

Creating Change

Yes, the angel rushed forth to fix things and only muddled them up. This is how we learn, though, by trying one thing and another. Like the angel, if we look closely at our failures, we can learn from them. We will be able to enter into the lives of those who suffer, listen to their stories, journey beside them, observe the consequences of our actions, and take responsibility for our mistakes. Thus we will grow, and our efforts to repair the world will be a bit more effective.

Yet even after God explained what the angel did wrong, the youngster could not fully understand. He wanted to repair the world, to perform tikkun olam, and that is a wonderful thing, but he still did not know what this meant, because he continued to focus on what was wrong rather than on what was right. If the angel had been able to see the spark within each person, perhaps then he might have brought healing to the world.

That is what the Baal Shem Tov did. For him, tikkun olam was about helping every person uncover their own divine spark. As he traveled from village to village, he didn’t arrive with answers to people’s problems. Nor did he censure them for being unkind or foolish. He certainly did not shame them. Instead, he revealed to them the divinity they already contained.

Repairing Our Own Souls

Ultimately, tikkun olam is about repairing our souls, about looking inside and gently blowing on the spark within us until it flares and burns strong, making of our spirits a holy thing. This isn’t about fairness or unfairness, outrage or defensiveness. It’s about the holy in me seeing the holy in you.

First, we need to work on ourselves, but that does not mean we should ignore the suffering of others, betray those who trust us, or take advantage of the vulnerable. Everyone is wounded. Everyone experiences unfairness. That is the way of life. To wait until we’re totally healed before we try to fix what we think needs to be repaired, will get us nowhere.

Tikkun olam is our Great Work, what we were created to do. To be successful at it, we must accept that without putrefaction, everything would disintegrate. Rather than trying to take away all suffering, we are called to stand with those who hurt, and also with those who cause their pain. All of us ache inside, and all of us hurt even those we love. We are not holier than the other.

Our hubris, our desire to be righteous and good, prompts us to chastise and condemn. But this heals nothing. To heal, we must honor, listen, touch, and hold. Yes, we should seek to make things more fair. That’s a wonderful impulse. Yet not everything that is cracked is broken. Our most important task is to seek the divine spark in ourselves and others and encourage it to grow. If we do that, we will have begun to repair the world.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Spring, Victoria, “Can Outrage Be a Good Thing?,” Scientific American, January 22, 2019, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-outrage-be-a-good-thing/, accessed 1/2/20.
  2. Sawaoka, Takuya and Benoît Monin, “The Paradox of Viral Outrage,” Psychological Science, August 9, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618780658 , accessed 1/2/20.
  3. Ibid.
  4. As told by Palmer, Parker, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, Indianapolis, IN: Jossey-Bass, 1999, 79-81.
  5. Ibid 82.
  6. Ibid 83.

Photo by InSaif Ali from Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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