Some of my favorite movies, growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, were based on good guys restoring order and reestablishing justice with overwhelming force and bravery. Rocky, Rambo, Harry Callahan and Colonel James Braddock disposed of bad guys, like Pampers at a daycare. Cinematic effects enhanced their triumphs and erased any doubt that the bad guy and the injustices he inflicted could survive.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, justice was an early theme in my life, and that’s likely what drew me to these movies, as much as the action and special effects. I wanted to see people get what they deserved, whether it was punishment or reward, because I felt an injustice of my own, and I was powerless to change it.
We all suffer from injustices of varying degrees. Perhaps a parent was taken from us at a young age or we grew up without adequate financial or emotional resources. Maybe we watched as others succeeded by shortcutting the system while we gave our best effort, followed the rules and still didn’t find comparable success. Maybe someone just swiped your parking spot. My sense of injustice stems largely from a physical disability that, despite my best efforts and due to no fault of my own, makes life difficult for me. Whatever the case, though we might have convinced ourselves that we are over it, the experience of injustice often lingers in our subconscious, as it does with me.
I notice it most on those rare occasions when I attempt to watch the evening news. In the privacy of my bedroom, I curse at the criminals who inflict their selfishness on others. I glare at images of terrorists who want to kill me and my family for where we live and what we believe. I shake my head in disgust at cultural changes that seem to be weakening our country. Because I don’t want my feelings of injustice to rob me of mental energy and inner peace, I must consciously protect my subconscious from sensing them, and I turn off the TV.
Psychotherapist Amy Morin recently published a list of suggestions for developing mental toughness, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. At the top of that list is “They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves.”
They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves. Injustice leads to a sense of victimization, and wastes time and precious mental resources.
In his New York Times bestseller, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell recounts an experience in his SEAL “Hell Week” when one of the trainers randomly selected a trainee and completely trashed the trainee’s quarters when he was out training. This poor trainee had experienced more than 20 hours of grueling physical tests, and another 20-plus hours awaited after a couple of hours of sleep. Instead of sleep that night, the trainee had to restore order to his room, though its trashed condition was no fault of his own, before inspection the next morning. Imagine the injustice he must have felt. A mentally weak person, under such extreme physical and mental exhaustion, and experiencing such extreme injustice, would have lashed out or simply collapsed. A SEAL can’t do that. If someone makes a terrible mistake on a mission or the enemy foils a near-perfect plan, a SEAL can’t spend time and mental resources being angry at the injustice and feeling sorry for himself. Doing so would get him killed.
Likewise, when things are tough for us, and we are angry at the injustice we perceive, we need to summon whatever mental toughness we have in order to resist the urge to feel sorry for ourselves. Only when self-pity is behind us can we focus on improving our situation.