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Spectacular Tragedy in a Just World: The Power of "Why?"

When tragedy challenges your worldview, you question your goals and beliefs.

Bombs blast Boston. A fertilizer plant explosion rocks Waco. An earthquake strikes Iran.

“Why did this happen?” victims will ask, “and why did this happen to me?”

“Why?” is enormous. As any parent answering a child’s questions can tell you, answering one “Why?” can lead to another after another until you hit a wall of whys you can’t answer. Spectacular tragedy does not require a spectacular explanation—a loner with a grudge really can kill a President, shoot up a schoolyard, or crash a fuel truck into a crowd—and yet we feel like it should. We want cause to transcend effect. A simple truth can leave us feeling cheated. Aching for adequate answers can lead some to assume conspiracies or magic must be behind it all. We need to believe in the existence of answers and purpose more powerful than our pain, in reasons and meaning bigger than the results.

When tragedy challenges your worldview, you question your goals and beliefs. To make sense of injustice, we may draw one of three global conclusions: (1) People will get the justice they deserve; (2) there is no justice; or (3) justice happens but it needs our help. The first belief can give us peace. People who believe in a just world suffer less stress and depression, and enjoy life more than people who do not (Lipkus, Dalbert, & Siegler, 1996). Many cultures teach their members from childhood to believe the world operates with natural order and justice—the just-world phenomenon that psychologist Melvin Lerner says comforts us because most of us, even the worst of us, consider ourselves to be basically good and worthy of fair treatment (Lerner, 1980; Lerner & Miller, 1978). Our need to believe the world is just, however, can lead us to make unjust decisions: The crueler the fate, the more harshly we might blame its victim (Burger, 1981; Valor-Seguar, Exposito, & Moya, 2011). “That girl was asking for trouble with a bullhorn.” “He must have done something to deserve that.” “That’s what those high-society types get for thinking they’re better than us. What were they thinking, walking down that street at night?” The people who most need our compassion may instead receive our cruelest critiques (Lerner & Simmons, 1966).

Believing in natural justice makes some people complacent, for they passively count on justice to happen on its own. People who believe we can create justice are more active, take-charge kinds of people, more ready to set aside their short-term self-interests and better able to stay motivated while working hard to satisfy long-term and less self-serving goals (Lipkus, 1991; Zuckerman & Gerbasi, 1977). Some of those who most actively pursue justice, not trusting it to happen on their own, feel a need to see it for themselves....

Asking “Why?” does not give victims solace. Answering it might. Searching for meaning can stress the searcher and worsen PTSD symptoms before that person comes out the other side. Finding meaning predicts better adjustment (Park, 2010). People who report posttraumatic growth (positive changes resulting from trauma) experience less depression and greater life satisfaction not by forgetting about the trauma but instead by dwelling on it in constructive ways. Numbing our feelings, refusing to acknowledge or think about bad things that have happened, all the dissociative tricks we play to protect ourselves instead of actively coping will predict more posttraumatic stress, not less (Ehlers, Mayou, & Bryant, 1998; Griffin, Resick, & Mechanic, 1997; Harvey, Bryant, & Dang, 1998). By feeling the negative emotions and recalling the unpleasant events, we might learn from them. Intrusive, unwanted ruminations that run ramshod over other thoughts can evolve into intentional contemplation. Such deliberation, in turn, may help a victim face the pain without drowning in it (Dekel, 2011; Helgeson, Reynolds, & Tomich, 2006; Triplett, Tedeschi, Cann, Calhoun, & Reeve, 2011).

“Why?” goes beyond seeking a direct cause. Meaning making, finding value in tragedy or forging our own means to make it have positive repercussions, helps many people cope and may be critical for posttraumatic growth. A shakeup of your worldview can mark the starting point for eventual achievements (Calhoun, Cann, & Tedeschi, 2010). “Meaning making is very personal and may involve religion, renewed appreciation for life, or public service” (Wortmann, 2009)....

The majority of people cope successfully with their traumas (Bonanno et al., 2011). Why some bounce back from adversity despite upbringing, environment, and great hardships (Wingo, Fani, Bradley, & Ressler, 2010), we don’t really know. Even though we can identify some factors correlated with resilience, the ability to adapt quickly to stress without lasting mental or physical ailments, we haven’t ferreted out the causal connections. Highly resilient individuals show greater morale, self-efficacy, self-reliance, perseverance, and purpose in life (Caltabiano & Caltabiano, 2006; Nygren, Alex, Jonsen, Gustafson, Norberg, & Lundman, 2005; Wagnild & Collins, 2009; Wagnild & Young, 1993). Psychologically resilient individuals rebound from dwelling on pain by summoning positive emotions (Ong, Zautra, & Reid, 2010; Zautra, Arewasikporn, & Davis, 2010). They invigorate themselves.

Social support helps—quality over quantity.

The excerpt above comes from Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight (Wiley & Sons, 2012), pages 46-47 and 50, with the comic book references edited out this time. Presented out of context, the comic book material seemed likely to distract from key points in this instance.

We cannot do nearly enough to help and support the victims, their families, and everyone impacted by these and other crisis. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. There's more than one way to run this marathon.


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