In recent times, my wife and I have had some difficult personal news to deal with. Together we've accepted it, and found that acceptance to be a great source of strength. Not all our loved ones managed so easily; those that struggled the most subscribe to a "just world" mindset, which I'd like to talk about today.

A just world

The just world mindset goes something like this:

The world is a fair place, where bad people have poverty and misfortune, and good people have good luck and abundance. Since we choose whether to be good, we are in complete control of our world. If something bad happens to someone, they must have somehow contributed to causing it.

Think about this carefully and you will find it to be false. Whether you are rich or poor has more to do with the place, time and circumstances in which you were born and raised than how moral a person you are. Beyond this, bad luck is capable of striking anyone at any time. But this is a convenient mindset for someone well-off to have, so some people have it still.

When bad luck strikes

If you have this mindset and bad luck strikes someone you love, you are in position of mental dissonance: the facts disagree with your beliefs. A minority of people will adjust their beliefs, but the majority will reinterpret the facts within their worldview. You may:

  1. Deny that something bad is really happening. The person you love is good, so something bad can't really be happening to them, right? This kind of thinking robs your loved one of the ability to have honest conversations with you.

  2. Assume they made poor choices. This is an subtle form of victim blaming that's rarely spelled out. If anyone can be struck down at any time, that's terrifying. But if people somehow cause these problems themselves, then you can feel safer knowing that things would be different for you. Needless to say, this is both insulting and unhelpful.

  3. Pursue extreme measures to "fix" them. Modern medicine has high standards of evidence for its cures in order to eliminate the wishful thinking, wasted resources and accidental harm of folk remedies. When you begin arguing for extreme measures, you strain your relationship and your good intentions can cause much harm.

All these strategies are damaging. What's a better worldview for us to hold?

A better worldview

We live in a world we're not in control of. Some people start better off than others for no good reason. Bad things can happen to anyone at any time, even good people who took reasonable precautions. We can't control circumstances, only our reaction to them.

When you see the world this way, and something bad happens to someone you love, you can skip the step where you look for reasons and just accept it for what it is. The search for a fix still happens, but it stops when you've exhausted reasonable options. This frees up your energy for supporting the people you care about in ways that actually make a difference.

Needless to say, this is the worldview which we have found most helpful. When people we love have it wrong, we do what we can to get them to reach this place.

Changing world views

People don't easily change worldviews, but the first step in the right direction is to notice and call someone out on their "just world" mindset and the bad behaviour it's caused.

  • For someone refusing to accept bad news, spell it out for them in full detail and have someone else tell them too.
  • For someone blaming you, call them out and remind them that bad things can happen to anyone, without rhyme or reason.
  • For someone caught up in finding The Fix, demonstrate to them that reasonable options have genuinely been exhausted, and that remaining options are unreasonable.

In most cases people are well intentioned; along with the above, describe how their behaviour harms the person they love, and they're more likely to double-check themselves and adjust their behaviour, if not their beliefs.

We learned all this the hard way. Had we recognised and addressed it earlier, we would have saved ourselves some effort, and helped our loved ones reach a state of acceptance sooner. Hopefully reading this will help you. Notice the "just world" mindset in yourself and in others, and don't let it sit uncorrected.