The Heart of the (Justice System) Matter

I heard a post-breakup song my first year of college that struck me to the core, not because I had gotten my heart broken in a way that made me feel the strength of the words, but because the song was composed of words of strength for so many life situations beyond romantic relationships. The song was “The Heart of the Matter” sung by India.Arie, who had heard the original Don Henley version and used her sweet voice to bring new life to it.

I think my favorite part about the song is how it guides listeners through the journey of dealing with one’s emotions– from hurt & anger to knowing what is right but not being able to feel it to being certain that “moving on” has nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with oneself. In the first bridge, she croons, “My will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it’s about forgiveness…forgiveness…” and by the time we reach the final moments of the song she changes her words; she’s no longer giving you as a listener a choice in how to respond but instead insists, “I know it’s about forgiveness.”

Nice that that shift happens within the confines of a 5-minute song, and it’s unfortunate that the world doesn’t work like that.

And why not? Well, for one, living as an art is a much less polished and concise act than songwriting and performing. We learn and work through emotions as we go, not shaping & practicing behind the scenes only to emerge with a perfect product for the world to consume. But perhaps a bigger reason is because we aren’t taught to digest our own struggles that quickly in order to cope in a way that is healthier for everyone involved or invested in our lives. Models of what is ‘right’ or ‘fair’ or ‘worth it’ are so skewed by so many systems making us think that we are entitled to be returned to the way we once were. That line of thinking doesn’t HEAL any terrible thing we suffer; it simply denies its impact on who we might become, should we have chosen to find a way to see the path through that instance and onto the other side, where our wiser, more deeply-lived self awaits.

This framework is one that restorative justice, a theory I believe very heavily in (especially after implementing it in schools across the southwest side of Chicago), tries to teach. In fact, in the peace education program I ran last year, we used to talk about a SCOTUS Justice (!!!!) who once said that “justice is a feeling,” not a specific penalty or procedure. It’s what we as human being seek to feel protected and important and valued and validated. RJ is an incredibly critiqued method of addressing offenses committed by people or communities, but I’m going to tell you I have seen it work many times first-hand precisely because it DOES serve as means to all those ends we falsely think our current justice system brings about.

A NYT article printed this week is causing a quiet but noticeable stir among my Facebook circles, which makes me happy. I think we see (and feel!) so much anger, frustration, impulse rage, and defensiveness on a regular basis that our ideas of “fairness” involve making other people feel those things to the same level that we did. Helping or hurting, kids? Helping or hurting?

I honestly believe it’s hurting. So do the families in the article. And I also think people like them who are paying attention closely enough can witness that pain in the crowds that surround them every single day. We can’t afford to continue being blind to the bitter emptiness we feel when we experience what the macro tells us should feel like closure & justice. We shouldn’t be against each other—we all need to be tirelessly working together instead to form safer, more inclusive, more sustainable communities where acts of malice and desperation don’t HAVE to happen and therefore never need to be punished.

These times are so uncertain

There’s a yearning undefined and people filled with rage

We all need a little tenderness

How can love survive in such a graceless age

And the trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness

are the very things we kill, I guess

Pride & competition cannot fill these empty arms

and the work they put between us

you know, it doesn’t keep us warm

Pushing people away and giving them what we think they DESERVE rather than what they (and WE) might actually need to grow in a positive direction from any scarring incident just doesn’t seem to be working. Not when we look at the hate groups & crimes still haunting the US, or the national tragedies like the one that happened 2 years ago today, or the incredible rates of recidivism in our prison systems, or the stalemate that our national legislative body, which is filled with highly-educated and polished individuals, still can’t seem to shake itself out of for any issue, event, or deadline.

You keep carrying that anger, it’ll eat you up inside

It’s high time to reexamine what “moving forward” looks like before we consume ourselves with animosity & apathy toward others’ humanness. (Hint: it has nothing to do with electric chairs or iron-barred facilities with no rehabilitative agenda.) I don’t think those who commit crimes should have free run of our streets & communities, but it’s a farce to act as though we’re doing enough to understand the big picture– where they’re coming from, what circumstances caused them to do it, and the long-term effect it has on our tax rates/personal safety/generations to come. We’ve got to admit to ourselves—and to each other—that we don’t have all the answers and pretending we do is a pretty ineffective bandaid for most situations of the justice system.

The more I know, the less I understand

and all the things I thought I knew, I’m learning them again

I’ve been trying to get down to the Heart of the Matter

That NYT piece is long, but I think it’s an important story and not one we are granted permission to hear very often. Most of us don’t expect or forsee anything but whatever life we hope for ourselves, and when crimes or wrongs change our course we’re so easily broken. THAT, dear friends, is pure, beautiful, quintessential humanness. Let’s hold onto that humanness and allow ourselves to keep feeling things instead of burying our empathetic instincts under paperwork, court fees, litigation, and the priorities the current justice system tells us to embrace.

I wanna be happily ever after

And my heart is so shattered

But I know it’s about forgiveness


PREACH. After all, don’t we all want to be happy and feel secure? So why can’t we do that for everyone, including folks we may have once regarded as our enemies? Why does depriving someone else of her/his security or freedom or opportunity make us think we are better off? Unlike artists recording in a studio for their perfect record, we’ve only got one take at this thing called life. Let’s please not spend our vibrant, vulnerable selves on chipping away at the chances another has at changing their directions for the better. People make mistakes. Some people make REALLY big, really bad, really destructive mistakes. But we have a choice to do the difficult (and POSSIBLE) task of not defining someone only as the worst thing they’ve done, and in doing that we escape the trap of defining ourselves as our own disappointments, too. We allow ourselves to be forgiven and be fragile and be part of something much, much more powerful and much, much larger than any one moment we’ve managed to create.

Because the flesh will get weak

and the ashes will scatter

So I’m thinkin’ about forgiveness



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