What I want to talk about today is a habit of thought that I think is both dangerous and damaging. It’s also far too easy to slip into, and I suspect it is something we all do to some degree.
The thought form goes something like this. “Because of this thing, I am entitled to act in a certain way.” To develop that, we might say “Because I am in pain it is totally reasonable for me to be short tempered.” That’s a line it’s easy to accept. “Because I earn the most money, I should be the one who makes all the decisions.” “Because I did not like what you said, I am entitled to hit you.” No doubt you can come up with plenty of alternative versions.
It’s a slippery slope to get onto. Now, everything we do is undertaken in a context. Our own feelings are part of that. If we are hurt, we become angry. If we are frustrated we may want to lash out. Feeling a thing is always fine. There can be no wrong feelings, they are simply how we respond. The difficulty arises when that feeling is then used as a justification for subsequent behaviour. Not only is this an issue in abuse situations, but it is something to consider in terms of personal honour and how we treat those around us day to day.
If we rely on justifications, do we accept the same justifications from others? Is it fine for someone else to be snappy with us because they were tired? Is it fine for someone else not to have done a job because they just didn’t feel like it? Wherever we draw our lines, integrity demands that we are consistent. If it is truly justified for us to behave in a certain way given the right circumstances, we have to make the same allowances for everyone else.
Closer scrutiny of the attitude that ‘I am justified because’ can lead us towards the uncomfortable conclusion that really our belief is ‘I am justified because this is what I want.’ When it comes to behaving badly, taking, using, not bothering and not taking care, this is at heart an act of laziness. It’s painfully easy to do, and becoming aware of doing it is very uncomfortable.
There are ways of handling it better. For example, I am frequently difficult around menstruation, I become impatient, short tempered and the pain makes me crabby. I do not always manage that well. If I snap at someone and follow through with “Well tough, I don’t feel good, I can’t help it,” I reinforce having knocked my victim back. If I instead apologise, recognise that I am spiky because of pain and make clear the problem lies with me, not the other person, they at least know not to take it personally and I have at least managed not to compound the initial slip by trying to justify it. If I think pain, illness or some other issue is going to affect me – moodwise, workwise, concentration etc then I try and warn people in advance. I’ve found that helps where circumstances make it genuinely difficult to maintain perfect self control. Explanations tend to work better than justifications.
No one manages to behave with perfect care and mindfulness at all times. We are human, flawed and fallible, and when life throws us challenges, we are not always going to field them with perfect grace. What matters, is being honest about that. Acknowledge the mistakes, recognise the reasons and they do not become entrenched as assumptions and justifications. Alternatively, if we get in the habit of justifying, it’s so easy to keep sliding down that route, towards an understanding where something as small as irritation justifies causing pain to another, or the suggestion that we are somehow less than perfect makes us feel entitled to verbally attack our ‘accuser’. I’ve seen that done, and it isn’t pretty, but I doubt anyone starts there.