Some of the unhappiest people I’ve ever met are “injustice collectors,” an evocative phrase which most of us intuitively understand as soon as we hear it. Injustice collectors ruminate continually about the Bad People who have harmed them. They are preoccupied with the injustices that they believe they’ve suffered; and as a result they live in mental prisons of helplessness, hurt, rage, and the longing for vengeance.
If we’re honest, most of us have done some injustice collecting in our lives, even if we’ve escaped its most extreme forms. Holding onto our grudges is always painful, but it also has its rewards. Self-righteous rage is a rush, which makes it potentially addictive. Letting go of seeing ourselves as life’s victim also means letting go of the comforting delusion of our own perpetual innocence. Because injustice collectors are convinced of their helplessness, they are rarely troubled by any questions of personal moral responsibility or accountability. But to acknowledge our strength also means acknowledging that we have the power to hurt others – which requires that we see ourselves as morally accountable in a new way. It means surrendering the delusion that, whenever we’re in conflict, we are always the only one who has been wronged. It means letting go of the pleasant assumption of entitlement – the self-serving idea that we are owed special treatment and consideration by the people around us.
Paradoxically, injustice collectors sometimes have a huge capacity for insensitivity and cruelty. The reason is that this mindset always involves dehumanizing and demonizing others, because somebody, or some group, has to fill the role of the perpetrator. And when we are in the trance of this mindset, the perpetrator or oppressor can become the omnipotent Other against whom any level of vengeance is justifiable. Nothing is more potentially destructive than the rage of these “innocents.”
But to challenge the thinking of injustice collectors is to risk being accused of insensitivity to cruelty and oppression, of not recognizing the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia and economic oppression. Vester Flanagan, the man who murdered two TV broadcasters in Virginia – who was a classic injustice collector — was also gay and black; and no one, I think, can seriously doubt that he must have suffered very real abuse and injustice by virtue of belonging to two targeted groups. But in his case, his experiences of injustice seems to have congealed into a solid identity, so that he uncritically lived every day of his life as its Victim.
Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama also suffered oppression, injustice and persecution. But we revere them because they refused to identify themselves with the role of Victim – with the sense of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, and vengefulness which are its defining features. None of them surrendered their human dignity to their oppressors, but even more remarkably, none of them forgot the humanity of their oppressors. They are moral examples for all of us, not only because of their courage in fighting injustice, but also because they demonstrate the amazing capacity of the human heart to remain open, forgiving, and compassionate under even the most oppressive of circumstances.
Extreme injustice collectors like Flanagan are all-but-impossible to help, because they’ve reached a level of cognitive closure which renders them impervious to any challenge to their convictions. But most of us have enough capacity for self-inquiry that we can examine our cognitive distortions and work to correct them. When tempted to succumb to injustice collecting, we can ask ourselves questions like: How does adopting an air of moral superiority help me? Does harboring resentment really lead to a meaningful life? Does it make sense for imperfect individuals to demand that others act perfectly? We can understand that that when we spend time collecting injustices we waste valuable mental energy that could otherwise be used to achieve our goals.
The human psyche is amazingly equipped to recover from experiences of trauma, injustice and cruelty. But while we can recover from specific experiences of victimization, we can never recover from the victim role, because a role isn’t a wound. It’s an attitude, a way of understanding our place in the world – that is, an idea. And we don’t have to recover from ideas that don’t serve us. We only have to learn to stop believing them.