Chris Byers, MA, LMHC
Honoring A King: Our Struggle Towards Justice Everywhere (Part I)
The Danger of Comparison
On this day of remembrance, many citizens of the world celebrate the life and legacy of one of the great titans of the civil rights movement. However, if we are to truly honor Dr. King’s dream, and dare to see it actualized, it requires us all to continue wrestling with injustice anywhere and everywhere, and ultimately finding the courage to do something about it.
Writing these words, I am keenly aware of the fear and anxiety racing through my body. Palms are sweaty, shoulders are tense, and it feels like my heart wants to explode through my chest. I know the topic of injustice is triggering for many, and for many different reasons. In this multi-part series, I have no desire to contribute more to the noise and division we are currently experiencing in our country and around the world. Instead, I desperately hope this psychotherapeutic perspective will provide some insight into the meta and micro levels of injustice and ultimately offer something helpful to facilitate personal and collective healing, growth, and change.
While much of my work as a psychotherapist is informed by a variety of different theorists and contemporary voices in the field of psychology, it is impossible for me to ignore the impact Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has had on my therapeutic approach and how I engage my clients on a daily basis. In his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King implored his fellow clergyman to take action against the grave injustices taking place in Birmingham and all over America. He writes, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” While I don't identify as an expert in the historical or literary works of Dr. King, any amount of critical engagement with his writings reveals that his dream for freedom was indeed a liberty and justice for ALL [period].
For a variety of reasons, words have a tendency to lose value, meaning, and/or significance over time. Unfortunately, I have discovered this to be true in my therapeutic work. Words like injustice, suffering, and oppression are so frequently used and misused, we become numb to the very real reality of the experiences these painful words hold for many of our clients, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family members. Regardless of your race, class/socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliation, and/or country of origin, it is an inescapable reality that each of us has or will experience some form of pain and suffering. It is here that the roads of healthy dialogue often diverge in this conversation pertaining to injustice(s).
What often moves us into divergence and out of connection, is our audacity to compare and judge one another’s pain and suffering to justify credibility or significance. We seek to determine who has suffered more and who has suffered less. In his book Life of the Beloved, author Henri Nouwen articulates the danger of this unfortunate comparison. He states, “No doubt, we can make comparisons; we can talk about more or less suffering, but, in the final analysis, your pain and my pain are so deeply personal that comparing them can bring scarcely any consolation or comfort. In fact, I am more grateful for a person who can acknowledge that I am very alone in my pain than for someone who tries to tell me that there are many others who have a similar or worse pain.”
These comparisons are never helpful and invariably create a hierarchy of suffering that ironically leads to even more harm. I cannot even begin to quantify the number of times I have heard clients invalidate their own pain because they fell victim to the comparison trap. “What do I have to complain about? I didn’t have it nearly as bad as…” When we fail to acknowledge and tell the truth about our/their pain and suffering, it makes healthy healing impossible. If there is to be any movement towards justice, repair, reconciliation, and healing at the meta and micro levels, we must not only avoid the danger of the comparison trap, but we also need to learn to hold space and care for the complexity of personal and collective pain and suffering.
Hopefully our celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will extend well beyond this national holiday. Honoring a King requires us to not only remember his words, but courageously apply them. This week, I invite you to think about his words, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”How do you begin to define injustice? I encourage you to make it personal. How have you experienced injustice in your life or seen how it impacts those you care about? Maybe it is easier to start by defining what the word justice means to you. In Part II of this series, next week I will define four essential ingredients of justice and identify what I believe is the #1 root cause of injustice and the perpetuation of it.