A therapist once told me that I have an over-inflated sense of justice. It lingers as one of the more jarring lessons in stripped-down candor that have slapped me into self-reflection. I was aghast and filled with that particular sort of indignation that runs on embarrassment and shame. It felt wrong, but I was young, raised to equate positions of power with correctness, and I took for granted that my perception of self was not impervious to the suppositions of others. She never explained why my sense of justice suffered from gas and bloating, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask. So, for lack of some prophetic vision about what exactly that meant and meant for me, I internalized this notion of myself for nearly two decades.
I prided myself in my fierce passion for justice, for me, for other marginalized and mistreated individuals, for communities stripped of any true equity. That much I knew. But the idea of over-inflated justice baffled me. From where I stood, the world seemed bereft of justice, too often for too many. Justice seemed reserved for those who could afford it, those who fit the profile worthy of its cathartic embrace.
Bristled and incensed, I smoldered with what-the-fuck-ness. I hadn’t yet learned that insight, the kind that carries profound change, is more long-suffering with us than we are with it. Like all things necessary to our growth and self-awareness, it takes the time it takes to illuminate the truths we need. Not to be mistaken with the truths we want and want yesterday. Patience and humble acumen didn’t exactly cross the finish line into the 21st century. There is no free two-day shipping for sussed out questions of self.
I picked and prodded at the remark as though dissecting high school biology specimen, my desperation a stink like pubescent hormones and formaldehyde. I wanted justice for my sense of justice. Driven by a need to refute rather than recognize an opportunity for growth when it verbally knocked me upside the head, I lost myself in parsing out the audacious affront. As far as I was concerned, my sense of justice had a tight bounce to it, the result of perfect inflation, and yet when questioned, it squished and sagged and squealed like a deflating balloon.
When we are young, we scoff at the notion that we will be wiser one day, that time and experience will change us, change our perspective, change our capacity to understand ourselves as walking multiverses, layered and complex and in many ways, inconceivable. The hubris of youth an inescapable gale of assumptions, reactions, and myopia.
But no matter our age, physical or emotional, clarity is not a neat science, and although I couldn’t see it at the time, behind my hubristic ire I yearned to reclaim not simply my sense of justice, but my faith in my sense of justice, confidence in my own discernment, as well as the ability to understand my conception of self outside the misconceptions of others.
Easy peasy lemon squeezey. After I’d spent well over a decade angry, befuddled, and too self-conscious to tell anyone or talk it out. After surviving life long enough to figure out that a sense of justice isn’t some fixed internal state, but a complex process created and cultivated with courage, kindness, compassion, generosity, integrity, and no shortage of mindful self-awareness. After I turned my energy to understanding that process and how each piece fit into not only who I thought I was, but who I wanted to be.
Not until I blinked my way out of my I’ll-show-you-sense-of-justice-bitch tunnel vision did I realize that while I was busy trying to bend the words to my will, they had quietly choked my capacity to intuit the fine line between a desire for vengeance and a hunger for justice, the wisdom to hold true injustice and act upon it with integrity. I had accepted my therapist’s summation as holy and correct because it had come from the mouth of someone empowered to say it with authority, and because I hadn’t yet figured out that I too could be empowered. That I could unloose the unnamable tether that had kept me from reaching certain truths, about myself and the things of life.
We’ve all been done wrong. At one time or another or more than we care to admit, we’ve all found ourselves devastated by some outrage, some deed, declaration, or deception that leaves us breathless and boiling in a vat of incomprehensible mixed with unfair-beyond-words. The longing to right a wrong is its own intense agony, haunting and intrusive. To be misrepresented and without recourse can eat away at a soul, so basic is our desire to be truly known and loved nonetheless. We are hardwired to react when posed with a threat to our physical or emotional wellbeing. But reactions don’t provide answers, and they certainly don’t offer comfort or insight. Instead, we must allow space for process and hard truths, broadening our understanding of who we are, how we got there, and empowering ourselves and each other to brave the self-searching that unearths the thoughts and feelings and experiences that have shaped us and our worldviews.
Once the bruising to my ego abated and I embraced the insight I’d gathered piecemeal over those two decades, I realized the painful gift I’d been given. To know myself better, to understand the vehemence fueling my sense of justice, to engage with the process of growing that sense and shape the way I put it into action. I carry it with me as a challenge and reminder of who I am as a human being and an advocate for justice. Now more than ever, I am grateful for that piercing proclamation. Now more than ever, I allow my sense of justice to swell with the times. Now more than ever, I embrace justice as a mindfulness without bounds, an emboldened call to action for myself, my community, my country.