Monday, 10 June 2013


John Cullen lectures in the School of Business at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.  He researches the relationship between work, spirituality & management learning (particularly their impact on our relationship with the natural world and society).


My aunt died this week.   She was the most soulful person you could meet.  Engaging, beautiful, compassionate and funny; the world seems quieter without her.  Her cancer came quickly and robbed everyone who knew her of somebody who made them feel vigorously loved.  That someone so young as her should be taken at such a young age is unjust.  All feelings of injustice derive from a sense of loss – of no longer having someone who reminds us of the importance of connecting to other people.  Someone who tells us that there is always something we can do to help people who have lost something. 

Last Palm Sunday Pope Francis tweeted: ‘We must not believe the Evil One when he tells us that there is nothing we can do in the face of violence, injustice and sin’.  Since then a clearer picture of what he means by ‘injustice’, and who he means as ‘perpetrators’ has emerged.  He has been increasingly outspoken in his comments against the ‘tyranny’ of the world of international finance who would have us believe that we all have to take the poisonous medicine of Austerity that has devastated families, ruined wellbeing and even led to the resurgence of far-right xenophobic groups.  The appeal that this latter group wield is doubtlessly grounded in the way that they appeal to a sense of justice that has been denied to working people by mainstream democratic parties.  We are all in a dangerous place because of a perceived lack of justice. 

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote that all human beings sooner or later have to engage with the most difficult fact of their existence: the fact that they will die.  People do this by becoming involved in an ‘immortality project’ which is a way of reminding ourselves that our existence is significant.  The social construction of these projects leads to conflicts between these systems over time.  Herein is the difficulty with harmful social and political movements: the people who run them ultimately believe that they are doing the right thing for themselves, their community, and even the world.  At the core of the injustice that they inflict on other people, they believe that they are being just. 

A Muslim friend of mine speaks of his faith in terms of justice.  He believes in afterlife where everything will be set right; where the people he loves who have suffered will be allowed to live the fullest possible life, and the indignities and illnesses they have endured will be forgotten.

Even the most atheistic amongst us want the same thing.  Marx recognised this desire to be one that religions could accommodate.  Religion is ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’.  His language is apt, because he speaks of a world without a heart and soul.  Our desire for justice is based on the need for recognising that people are not consumers, market segments or human capital.  We are not whatever economists imagine us to be; we are contributors to long emergent cultural processes. 

Becker proposed that people became mentally ill and depressed because they are denied access to resources which could enable them to complete their immortality project.  Boring work, poverty, evidence of a lack of compassion make people believe that the concept of a soul – our sense of self which is rooted in the various groups we are members of – has ceased to exist.  Without souls we are only intelligent animals who do not owe each other anything and only have a duty to satisfying our own self-interest.  Like the demon in The Exorcist who tries to convince the priests that humans are animals who are not worthy of God’s love, the concept of behaving justly is integral to the idea of living a life that is soulful.  Whereas markets have a strong utility in helping people develop their skills in a meritocratic way, innovating and satisfying needs, when they become an overall orthodox ideology on whose terms solely is society governed, then we have found a rationale for treat people as if they had no souls - a rationale for treating them unjustly.

The easy thing to do is to find someone to blame for our losses – extremism always fills the gap of hurt easily.  But there is something more productive we can do when we feel like a victim of injustice.  The cultural psychologist Rick Shweder has demonstrated that depressed states are associated with the concept of ‘soul loss’ in many societies.  In Thinking Through Cultures (1991) he writes: ‘To feel depressed one must have had experience with the soul’(p.255).  In short, experiencing intense pain is the first step that we take to find more soulful ways of living.  Facing the pain of injustice and the reality of loss in a mature way leads us to new ways of creating justice for others. 

In Memory of Nuala Joyce.

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