Ever since I was young, I have felt a strong desire to work for a better world. I remember being especially concerned about issues of poverty and homelessness when I was a teenager.
Do You have Justice Anxiety?
As I grew older, I was still concerned about these issues, but I also became concerned about other ones as well. I especially became concerned that many of the products I purchased on a daily basis were made by people in other countries who were paid very poor wages to manufacture cheap goods.
I also learned about ways in which human beings often have a destructive impact on the planet and destroy parts of the environment in our quest to have the good life.
The more I learned about these things, the more I became anxious about the ways in which my life caused suffering for other people and the planet. And while I knew I could do things to diminish suffering–like buy fair trade products, buy many items second-hand, ride the bus, and compost and recycle–I was still overwhelmed with justice issues. How could I even make a dent in these problems? I worried.
I realized that even if I lived a really simple life, even some of my basic necessities were still made at other people’s expense because many of the basic systems in place in the world are based on exploiting other people’s labor.
I often have justice anxiety—I want to be just and fair to other people and the planet, but sometimes I don’t know how to do this and have the basic things I need to survive, do my job, and thrive as a human being.
Maybe you have justice anxiety, too.
My Friend Drew Makes Me Think
The other day I was perusing Facebook, and my friend Drew, who is deeply concerned about social justice issues (even more so than I am), shared this post that helped me. Drew writes (words and pictures posted with permission),
Every day I look around my home and think,
“There’s no way I could ever work hard enough to pay off the real cost of producing all the things that I enjoy: food, frig, clothes, running water, electricity, books, phone, laptop, wi-fi, bike, car, the rental house itself. How much of this do I really deserve?”
and the answer is always,
“None of it.”
This is my friend, Drew.
And then I think of all the natural resources and waste product and exploited labor and unjust distribution that it took to provide me with a precariously comfortable working class existence.
And then I think,
“If it’s not mine, how can I give it back?”
and the answer is always,
“You can’t, even if you wanted to.”
So then I think,
“Well, how can I at least stop hurting others from now on?”
and the answer is always
and it puts me in a really dark place for a moment or two,
until I remember that I’m also a source of sustenance and joy for a few other beings on the planet,
This is Drew and his family.
until I remember that as long as I feel duties to meet others’ needs and desires, I also rightfully have needs and desires,
until I remember that literally everything else, including every single person who (it seems) is oppressed and exploited by the very fact that I’m alive, is ultimately in the same existential position, that we’ve all been given Being together,
and no amount of strife, adding value to our precious world, could ever pay off my indebtedness for that divine exchange of Being for Nothingness, because it’s not a debt or an exchange, it’s a gift,
and I’m learning how to accept it.
Dealing with Justice Anxiety
Drew’s post reminded me of a few things I have realized as I have tried to deal with my justice anxiety over the years:
One: Human beings are creatures of deep need. Our very nature entails that we must rely on both ourselves and other people to survive and flourish in the world. This is true in our basic interpersonal relationships, as well as in our political and economic relationships.
Two: Human beings cannot escape needing things and being vulnerable. This is who we are. We have basic needs such as the need for food, shelter, clothing, and warmth. But we also have higher needs like the need to develop our emotions, our creativity, our talent, and to live a purposeful life. Every human being has these needs, and every human being’s needs are legitimate.
Three: Every human being has basic dignity and deserves to thrive and flourish, and every human being needs other people to thrive and flourish. (You can read more about this here and here). This means that our very ability to become who we are depends on the gifts of labor, time, emotional and financial investment.
These are gifts we can never repay. We were not meant to. We were meant to accept those gifts with gratitude and to share these gifts joyfully and freely with others. This is how we create a world together in which everyone can thrive.
Four: Because we rely on others, we are inevitably involved in relationships of giving and taking. These relationships are good and necessary. However, sometimes in the process of giving and taking, we create cycles of exploitation in which one person or a group of people are doing most of the giving (often against their will), and other people are doing most of the taking—usually through force, coercion, and violence of various forms.
Sometimes people engage in relationships of exploitation purposefully (as in wars of conquest and slavery). Sometimes, however, people unwittingly become involved in relationships of exploitation. (For instance, when we don’t realize the exploitative consequences of a business we create or are unaware of the way people are exploited to produce the chocolate we eat.)
Five: One of the primary goals of the human race is to create a world of interdependence without exploitation. We cannot escape our need for one another, and the need in itself is good. We can figure out a way to be interdependent without exploitation. We’re not there yet.
While individuals certainly must concern themselves about issues of exploitation, a main focus of governments, corporations, and other major social institutions should be to help us structure a society that is powerfully interdependent without exploitation.
Individuals cannot end exploitation if the institutions that structure our public lives embed exploitation into our daily existence and the basic mechanisms of society. We need to vote for governments and patronize businesses that encourage interdependence without exploitation.
Six: While justice anxiety is normal sometimes, stewing in it is not helpful because it can lead to overwhelming and paralyzing feelings of shame, hopelessness, despair, and powerlessness. What is helpful is consistently working to 1) honor our own vulnerability and needs; 2) honor other people’s vulnerability and needs; 3) diminish exploitation in our own relationships; 4) diminish exploitation in our public and economic lives.
Seven: One of the best things we can do to foster interdependence without exploitation is to cultivate kindness, compassion, and respect for ourselves and other people (this is the practical expression of love). When we do this, we are naturally drawn to cultivate healthy interdependence and to diminish exploitation.
Healthy interdependence involves respectful dialogue, listening, expressing legitimate needs, nurturing through kindness and compassion, establishing healthy boundaries, pointing out instance of dehumanization in society, working together to forge creative solutions, engaging in practices of play, hope, and joy.
Eight: We must focus on one thing at a time (or two or three or seven, if it is not overwhelming). I’m sorry to break this to you, but you cannot solve all the problems of the world. You are not God or Superman or Wonderwoman. All you are required to do right now is to think of one thing you could do to show kindness, compassion, and respect to yourself and others. And then once you do that, do the next thing. And then take a nap or go for a walk or paint to take a break. And then do the next thing. Do not underestimate the power of small acts done consistently over time, or (as the late Eugene Peterson used to say), “A long faithfulness in the same direction.”
Your need to thrive is legitimate, Friend.
So are the needs of other people.
We can learn how to share the gift of life together and enjoy interdependence without exploitation. We are figuring out how to do this right now. Let’s continue this good work together.
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 I don’t mean that every felt need a human being has is legitimate. Rather, I mean that every human being has a need to develop her or his physical, emotional, and mental capacities (this is the process of self-actualization) in a way that honors these developments in other people, too. This is one of our primary purposes on the earth and as a human species.
 I know it can sound strange, and perhaps even irresponsible, to talk about play, hope, and joy when there is so much suffering in the world. I like to think of play, hope, and joy as practices we use to build justice resilience. Working for a more humane world requires a lot of hard intellectual and physical work, and it requires that we frequently engage in grief and lament over the injustice we see in the world.
This work can be exhausting, and it is unending work because there is always more suffering we can address. In order to remain faithful to such work, we must cultivate both internal and external reserves. Engaging in moments of play, hope, and joy is one of the ways we do this. They are moments that remind us of who we are and what we can become together.