The Twitch Upon the Threads of Justice, Forgiveness, and Self-Compassion

We have a complex relationship with justice. As a nation organized under the rule of law, we see justice through the lens of those laws and the administration of justice as a reflection of enforcing them. If someone breaks a law, there are a wildly complex set of processes to set parameters around the determination of the transgression and the application of penalties to correct and/or punish for the transgression. We very much see justice as a process of “righting wrongs” through punishment, remuneration, or reparation of some form.

Our justice system is necessary to maintain order in our society but it creates confusion around the notion of justice as a virtue. Simply put, justice as a virtue is giving one their due. It is treating another human being with dignity and respect simply because they are a human being. Justice underpins our notion of fair play and basic rights – our due as citizens of our country and our due as human beings sharing the world.

Each of us intuits the virtue of justice and acts or reacts toward other people from our own sense of it. Some of us may argue broad points of “what’s due” to another human being, but we basically agree on the finer points of how others should be treated – we know what is the “right” treatment of another person even if we frequently fail in acting according to that belief. Lying, cheating, stealing, hurting, and meanness are basically frowned upon as injustices, whether or not there is a law regulating them. Though we often try to legislate virtuous behavior, it is problematic to enforce.

Falling under the broad bucket of justice as a virtue, lies a wide range of behaviors we bring to bear against one another in the context of what they are due as fellow human beings. Injustice comes in the form of indifference, indiscretion, inconsideration, and even ignorance as it relates to another person. These are often the seemingly small slights we foist upon each other as scurry about our days seeking our own aims. At its heart, justice as a virtue runs along the edge of our own selfish self-interests relative to the people around us.

Injustices stack up quickly in almost all of our human relationships. We rarely see ourselves treating others unjustly but we often see others treating us unjustly. The words “I didn’t deserve that or I deserve better” skip across our conscious in real and imagined slights that get deposited with compounding interest in the vault of our own psyche. Resentment becomes the return on such investments and leads to the spiral of broken relationships that tends to cascade from this dark treasury. The have a very long shelf life.

Often, our increasing account of slights builds into its own depressive anchor, not only derailing relationships but burdening our own joy with a growing millstone of injustice. Here, the brain cloud of disappointment and frustration creates its own lens on a world that makes it easy to see only the negative forces pushing against us. It becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy as its gravitational pull attracts even more injustices and we begin to see everything as a growing conspiracy bent on stealing resisting, and stealing, our happiness.

Curiously, the only cure for the burden of such injustices is forgiveness, but it can be so very hard to find when we feel that justice demands punishment and/or atonement for the slights. Many of us have become really, really, effective at administering such punishment, often leaving a trail of broken or frayed relationships in our wake. No worries, we find consolation in knowing we were right. Don’t we?

Of course, visiting injustice upon another for the injustice they first gave (at least we think that’s where it started) rarely brings us comfort. Typically, we find ourselves struggling with our own sense of petty smallness as we grip tightly to our own selfish self-interest and the pride it fosters. The infuriating truth we begin to recognize is that our “just” response to the injustices we endure only creates more resentment in how we see the other…and our self. Inside, we sense the truth of it and begrudgingly begin to realize that it is our own smallness holding us back from the joy we desire.

The Latin origin of the word “reconcile” means eyelash to eyelash, reflecting a true intimacy in the bringing together of that which was broken. But how do we get there when we know we are “right” even as we see how much our “rightness” is not helping us? We must first confront our pride, a feat not accomplished by telling ourselves to stop or hating ourselves for our pettiness, but attained first through justification and finished in compassion.

Justification and compassion? One of the great gifts of the Catholic Church is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as confession. Through this process, the sinner seeks forgiveness, to be reconciled to God, by acknowledging and then confessing transgressions. A powerful precursor to the Sacrament is an examination of conscience in which the penitent does a deep dive on his sins and sees them for what they are: injustices against his fellow man and God. Moments of not giving either their due.

Whether or not you believe in such a Sacrament bringing the forgiveness of sins, there is deep psychological power in the process. First of all, we have to move through the “justification” of our behavior, facing the truth of how we see our own rightness and the ultimate wrongness in our reactions, to the acknowledgement of our own failing, and then into self-compassion before we can ultimately move beyond our part in the failing (our own pettiness, selfishness, and pridefulness).

We have to find the compassion for our own failing before we can give it to the one who failed us. We must first feel justified in our own reaction to the injustice we experienced before we can confront our own failings and reactions with regret, and then find compassion for the raw humanness within our self. Moving from feeling right in our justified sense of injustice to seeing the wrong in our reaction, it is the self-compassion of acknowledging our humanity that enables us to act with compassion toward the other and their raw humanity.

Here, we have the chance to find reconciliation. This is the pathway of letting go – of the slights, the hurts, the injustices. To endure the selfish ignorance of other people, we must first recognize, and forgive, our own selfish ignorance as what it is: a reflection of the intrinsic failings of our own humanity. From here, we can move to a place of compassion for the unjust around us as we find self-compassion for our own unjust behaviors.

  • Jaime Borkowski

    Oh man, this one was good, Phil! So many truths in there and all written so eloquently. Such a slippery slope for any relationship, that accounting of slights and our sense of justice.

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