I was maybe 8 years old, and some older kids were pressing in on me with their bikes and pointing out ways in which I fell short of their version of the ideal. It had been going on a while, and though I was pretty sure they weren’t going to get violent, it wasn’t a whole bunch of fun either. The alpha male of the gang had started on a list of examples of why I was the odd one out. And somewhere in there, frustrated at the experience, I turned the tables on him, saying “I’m the odd one out because I’m not ganging up on someone,” or words to very similar effect. Whatever the precise incantation, it worked, and the bullies departed. I’m by no means claiming my words gave them an insight into their wrongdoing. More likely, they weren’t expecting any kind of comeback, so went in pursuit of a less gobby victim.
It’s an incident that I suspect I’ve recounted before, and it came to mind again thanks to the direction my meditations have taken me lately. Right now the meme that’s growing among the various communities who are partial to weekend workshops, retreats and the books and audio sets that accompany all that activity is love. Quite often it’s expressed as loving kindness. And I’m all in favour, while at the same time wondering what the people engaged in it all will be doing in five years time, when there’ll be a new hot meme – one, I hope, that’s just as beneficial as the love bug is.
And that’s where the incident with the biking bullies comes in. What motivated me to act as I did was not love, but a sense of injustice. And that starts to open up a way of looking at life that I believe has real value. Certainly, in looking through my own life I can see that justice is a thread running through the way that I feel, think, and respond across many contexts.
Justice is a domain that exists separate from love, and alongside it. I’m sure that with sophistry it’s possible to say that justice cannot exist without love, that it is merely a reflection of the reality of loving consciousness, and so forth. I’m not convinced. And if you go back in time, you’ll discover that other belief systems approach the matter similarly. Justice is one of the classical virtues according to Plato, and crops up in early European thought a lot. But careful: justice in those contexts often refers to the constraints of a given society’s legal framework, and I’m looking at something going beyond that.
Me as an 8 year old kid in Birmingham knew nothing of classical virtues, but felt the wrongness of being singled out and (in a small way) victimised. OK, so wrongness can be felt? Yes. And it’s a feeling that can prompt action to change the situation you’re experiencing to a more equitable one. Jazz innovator Miles Davis experienced a real shock when he started to play with touring bands. Like his fellow musicians, he was black. Unlike them, he had grown up in a wealthy family. Being barred from some southern venues, and restricted to using a side door for others, was something he’d never experienced before. His response to segregation earned him a reputation for arrogance.
When Rosa Parks got on a bus and took a seat that her colour excluded her from, who knows whether what she felt was injustice, the justice of what should have been, or simply that she saw the reality that a white man’s words could not physically prevent her from sitting down. Whatever the truth, the consequences of her simple action led to major changes for the lives of black Americans.
If love is something that’s eternally present, maybe a sense of justice and the experience of injustice is what draws us to a better future. This is where I suspect I differ from the fully loved-up: while I can and do perceive love in many forms here and now, I also acknowledge that for many people on the planet we share, life falls short of the experience it could be. You know the litany: more food than people, institutionalised sexism and racism and other oppressions, and so forth. Those experiences change when people respond to the call of justice, or the feeling of injustice.