Are Justice and Compassion Mutually Exclusive?

“It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.” (Page 66 of the Big Book.)

Are justice and compassion mutually exclusive? I have been thinking about this for days. I believe they may be for those of us in 12 Step Programs if we are to have any peace.

Here’s what I mean. When I see something I consider unjust, I feel myself getting all riled up. Adrenaline begins to flow and self-righteous indignation is the result. I spout off (often loudly) about the injustice of it all. I can get myself utterly worked up. And that is not good for my recovery (or my health).

In trying to live a life of peace, when I am wronged I am told in the Big Book to show “tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend.” (page 67) I am assuming that this extends out to harms perpetrated on anyone. Otherwise, the Big Book would say that it is OK to be enraged at the court system if you disagree with a verdict or the government if they don’t behave as you would like. Instead, the Big Book says on page 66:

But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintence and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die. If we were to live, we had to be free of anger.

That means I cannot afford to get worked up over anything. That means that I have to find a way to meet injustice with compassion. Or I will eventually relapse into compulsive debting.

From Addict Thinking to Recovery Thinking

That is a tall task. Especially for addicts who have perfected the art of blaming others for their problems. Even in recovery, I may take responsibility for what happens in my own life, but I have often used the excuse of bigger injustice as a way to get high on adrenline and self-righteous indignation.

But here’s the thing. I cannot un-know what I know. And I know that my body feels beat up after a bout of spewing out poison even if it feels justified.

From people who don’t pick up their dog’s poop in the dog park to trials where I feel justice is not served to lawmakers with whom I don’t agree to bosses who are inept to whatever else may bug the heck out of me, let’s face it, there is more injustice to fight than any one person can handle.

Living in the Solution

And the Big Book tells me I don’t have to do so. So how do I meet injustice with compassion? How do I view somebody who leaves their dog’s poop in the dog park just waiting for me to step in it with equanimity?

The Big Book tells us on page 67:

When a person offended we said to ourselves, ‘This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. They will be done.’ We avoid retaliaion or argument. We wouldn’t treat sick people that way. If we do, we destroy our chance of being helpful. We cannot be helpful to all people, but at least God will show us how to take a kindly and tolerant view of each and every one.

So we can do a mini 4th step if the feelings persist. We can pray for the person or people. In the moment, when I feel my blood boiling up, I can start by staying quiet. By not releasing the poisonous thought into the universe. In a way, it’s practicing the opposite of the defect of gossip.

The Dalai Lama spoke about a senior monk who had been imprisoned in a Chinese prison for 18 years.  He said, ” Once, when we were chatting about his experiences he told me that there had been dangerous moments during his imprisonment. I thought he meant threats to his life, but he said, ‘No, there were times when there was a danger of my losing compassion for my Chinese captors.’ ” This proves that it is possible, even in the most heinous of circumstances to meet poison with peace.

What Really Matters?

I sometimes think, when I am enmeshed in self-righteous anger, that in the end, we are all dead. In the end, we are all equal. In the end, what matters?

And I remember that for me, what matters is that I stay in recovery and live a life of integrity with as much peace and meaning as I can. The only way for me to do this is to increase my conscious contact with my Higher Power and to do my best to practice love and compassion even when it is not easy. To do my best to counter injustice with compassion in my world, doing service and living in the light rather than in the darkness.

3 thoughts on “Are Justice and Compassion Mutually Exclusive?

  1. I stopped by here to check out the spending plan touted as “the best” in a lineup of Google results, and came across this post.

    First, you need to update your familiarity with how the Dalai Lama is dealing with China. He is a very canny politician, and very much in the 21st century. He has given up quiet good wishes and started calling the Chinese evil, and seeking active, constructive world response to their treachery.

    Next, you must understand that the Big Book was published in 1939 when less than 100 ragtag folk had stumbled around for JUST FOUR years trying to make a go of this not-drinking thing. While this book, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” was indeed inspired, it is not infallible by any means. (FWIW I keep two different editions, the 3rd & the 4th, by my bed, as I joined AA more than 20 years ago.) Its weakest link is its handling of the human emotion of anger which, coincidentally, I was just sharing about tonight in a meeting. Indeed, there are injustices (to pick up on your post) in the world, outrages, that MUST be righted. The point (in my world) is not to extinguish the feeling with a (sugar-coated) prayer, but to learn to handle that feeling, and take appropriate constructive action, whether in the context of a personal relationship, or in world affairs.

    You may have noticed how many things on Earth are amiss, mostly the result of self-centered human carelessness or callousness (e.g., there was just an ad on TV by the World Wildlife Fund about how tigers are being slaughtered out of existence). It strikes me as the ultimate in self-centeredness to develop spiritual strength solely for personal benefit, as you describe it, serenity and sanity. Sure, the world may be slightly less messy without you screwing up your finances, but that is NOT ENOUGH. You have been given the power to be of great service to help relieve suffering in this world, and it is a terrible, terrible shame if you fail to use it. Maybe you know the Biblical story of the three servants who were given a few “talents” (ancient coins) by their master? If not, Google it.

    So there is the challenge: to learn to feel your feelings, then let the feeling go and take constructive action to improve the Earth that Almighty God has Graciously given you eyes to see. Maybe there is a reason that He has led you to see these injustices; maybe you have a specific insight or perspective to shed light and help resolve the conflicts? Dig?


    • Thank you for your reasoned response to this post. You make good points. I guess I feel that righting injustice is important but that it is how I feel internally while doing so that is really at issue for me. I can take action all riled up inside, which will make me sick and then unable to function … or I can work toward finding that place of calm within me which will make my action much stronger and more focused. When I take action while being all riled up inside, I end up sick and unable to be of service because I’m totally out of commission for awhile. I strive to take that action after I can do so calmly, to the best of my ability.

  2. I would never take action while feeling all riled up inside, God (good orderly direction) does not feel like that for me. I find I have to settle my own internal affairs first. Why? Because, my response may be totally out of alignment with what is happening. In my experience, my riled up feeling are triggered by some experience or event in my past (do a google search of “limbic memory”)and that is what my anger, resentments etc. are really being generated by. Carl Jung said it best, when he commented that he is always curious about the image behind the emotion he has. Your perception of the reality before you (that person, place, thing or situation) is crucial and you must first attend to what it means for you.

    Taking the stance of the detached observer is difficult but helps enormously. It involves standing back and observing your anger, or whatever emotional response, you are having. I know that I must do this with my Higher Power in charge not me. My mind will do whatever it must to ensure I do not confront the uncomfortable truth which challenges my core belief system. If I am suffering under the clutches of anger or resentment or indignation, my actions after that are not spiritually fit. An old timer in program one told me that it is my job to first stay spiritually fit. If God wants me to do something, he/she/it they will not only show me the way but will also give me the courage and strength to do it. If my heart is racing and I can taste fear in my mouth, this is not God, nothing Divine requires that I put myself into such a state that I’m ready to do something that will harm me either physically, emotionally or spiritually – or for that matter another person who will be at th receiving end of my actions.

    However, when we are about to take an action or speak up that is new or unfamiliar for us, we will experience normal human emotions. The point is to take a moment and ask yourself what would someone you truly admire, either real or in fiction ie Yoda do in this situation? When no other good orderly guidance is available the best you can do is to centre yourself. Proceed with caution and check with your feelings how its going. If you experience increased racing heart, fear, feeling light headed after a few moments, pull back.In my experience ,if this is God’s will, I do start to feel something slightly better. As I proceed I constantly check in with my feelings and with God. Sometimes, I’ll just say, ” OK HP you tell me what to say and I’ll say it…”

    Its important to note that there are practical things you can and must do to do deal with the symptons of being riled up. First and foremost BREATH…deep breaths, have your eyes look up (don’t move your head) and smile. These are practical steps that will signal the brain to relax and shift you out of rile up emotional reactions. If you can move your body, go for a short walk, tense and release muscles, anything you can think of to release the physical tension. In one situation I began to hum a song I loved to myself, one that calms me not riles me up more. We do this for babies and young children when they are upset why not ourselves. Maybe you need to hug something even if its just a pillow…or if there is too much tension punch the pillow.

    I find if the source of my anger is based in some injustice done to me in my past that has been unconsciously triggered. Allowing myself to rant even silently in my head helps and better yet, if I can talk to God and cry about it…the energy it releases is amazing. I find a calmness in the end that then allows me to go to the next stage whereby I either confront the person, place, thing or situation that riled me up in the first…or I decide not to.

    The Power of living in the moment, under the care and direction of your Higher Power, brings about a PAUSE before you do anything…you have every right to pause and do or say nothing, even if someone is pressuring you to do so…let them talk all they want, tune them out and tune your HP in. If you are truly in a dangerous situation, your survival mechansim will know it and act, you will have no conscious choice over that since this is a built in mechanism that our species is equipped with in order to survive. I have never had this happen. In fact, all of my problems, worries, fears, anger and resentments have been created by me whether I consciously chose it or not, I created it and with God and the 12 Steps help, plus tools and skills I learn along the way, I can choose a better way.

    Last, I have experienced this countless times and I am still exploring it. But I have found that when I get riled up it is not because I suddenly moved from a state of feeling good to having this something just walk up and happen to me. I have found that I was already pissed, feeling indignant, feeling self righteous, feeling bad about myself, feeling inferior, like a victim even before that person, place thing or situation presented itself…this leads me to believe that something inside of me is looking to vent and maybe just maybe I was looking for someone or something to get all riled up about precisely so I could vent and release. In this case, I am looking for it, not the other way around. So praying for the other person is an excellent way to align myself to God’s will not my own.

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