Reflection 64: Social Justice and Personal Growth

Eric Hoffman, a philosophy professor at St. Joseph’s University, is the author of this week’s Reflection. He is also the conductor of The Essential Experience Workshop, referenced in the Reflection.

Brought to Philadelphia in 1989, by Eric and his wife, JoAnne Fischer – and offered 3 times a year – more than 2,000 people have participated in the Workshop. Over the years, Eric and JoAnne have nurtured a vibrant graduate community that wonderfully exemplifies Radical Decency’s values.

For more information about the Workshop, go to

Social Justice and Personal Growth

My friend, Jeff Garson, has been seeking, for the past decade or so, to encourage all of us to integrate our pursuit of personal growth with our pursuit of social justice. He describes this effort under the name “Radical Decency.” I want to take a moment here to notice how these two pursuits are so often kept separate and to urge, along with him, both intellectual and practical integration.

For many people, neither personal growth nor social justice is a central value. Some people are engaged in survival or have some other frame on the world such that neither personal growth nor social justice captures their ideals. For many others, however, at least one of these values is crucial to their self-image. They see themselves as engaged, for example, on a spiritual quest, growing toward enlightenment, or simply committed to self-improvement. Or else, they see themselves as in service to the poor and oppressed, engaged in social change. For some people, the commitment to one or the other of these values is sustained by a kind of rejection of the other. That, to me, is an interesting phenomenon.

For example, I hear people committed to spiritual or emotional or personal growth express abhorrence of politics, suggesting that its divisiveness is inevitably contrary to the spiritual commitment to recognize a universal humanity. Politics seems to insist that others be seen as opponents or adversaries, if not enemies. Advocacy for social justice seems to the personal growth folks to contradict the recognition of each individual as precious and valuable. It seems judgmental in insisting that some are right and others wrong about how our social institutions should function, and the fundamental value of personal growth is to be non-judgmental and accepting of everyone. In these ways, rejection of political involvement helps to support the commitment to personal growth. We manifest our commitment to personal growth in part by avoiding political judgments.

Conversely, those who are politically committed will often express a frustration with those whose main commitment is personal growth. They may see them as self-indulgent or as failing to engage in the vital battle for human welfare and fairness in the world we live in, thereby leaving injustice in place. The politically committed may feel a need to reject the abstractness and disengagement of a commitment to personal growth in order to reaffirm the importance of political commitment to social justice. We manifest our political commitment in part by avoiding too much personal indulgence.

These kinds of attitudes are expressed relatively often, I think, though there is sometimes a weak acknowledgment of the need for some integration. The person whose primary value orientation is toward personal growth may, in some extreme cases, be moved to see some particular social outrage as requiring comment or even action. This will be seen as a kind of exception and assimilated to the personal growth frame as much as possible. Similarly, some politically committed folks will see the need to explore feelings and relationships on occasion, as long as it doesn’t get too private and distract from the important work of social change. This kind of minor inclusion of the other frame seems to me to be an advance, because, in my view, both frames are important.

What is much more difficult is to pursue a really robust integration of the two frames, to develop ways of seeing them not as in conflict so much as in a creative tension that can generate powerful synergies. This may involve owning the resistance we may have to really embracing the other side of the tension.

So, for instance, what is behind the accusation of the person who is politically committed that the personal growth advocate is “self-indulgent”?  Here, there is a resistance to taking care of oneself. The political activist may see almost any self-care as self-indulgent. This may involve disowning the part of oneself that needs care as weak and unworthy. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the meaning of the social justice advocate’s care for the weak in society. Is there judgment mixed in with compassion for the poor? How, they might be challenged, can you advocate for the weak without also acknowledging and advocating for the weak parts of yourself? These are hard questions that pose a challenge to those committed to social justice to look more honestly at their personal feelings and motivations.

On the other side, the personal growth advocate’s characterization of the social justice advocate as “judgmental” is equally open to question. The resistance to political stances may have more to do with avoidance of conflict than with any spiritual principle.  Anxiety about confrontation with others may generate a kind of rationalization that sounds like a commitment to universal humanity, when it is mainly a way to remain comfortably disengaged. Moreover, this kind of withdrawal arguably diminishes any real compassion for the people who most need it, a kind of betrayal of the very spiritual values one claims to hold. The challenge to the advocate of personal growth is to look more honestly at the world and its dynamics of injustice and to explore more fully how compassion might be expressed in a struggle for justice.

These challenges, directed to those who seek a vibrant integration of personal growth and social justice, are rather general. The practical question is what this might look like in the lived world.  There are many groups and individuals engaged in this set of challenges. In the Essential Experience Workshop Community, which is stronger on the personal growth side than the social justice side, we have stretched in the past to include a social justice dimension in the community.

We encourage service in a variety of ways, for instance. In the past, we have sponsored (mostly under the leadership of Jeff and, his wife, Dale) service trips locally and abroad, and we have conducted discussions and designed projects aimed at diversity issues. Nonetheless, these initiatives would need renewal at this point to pursue more balance of personal growth and social justice in the EE community. The absence of such initiatives may be a reason why some, whose inclination is more toward the social justice dimension, may feel less aligned with the EE community.

I, for one, would like to see a revitalized social justice dimension in our Community. It may be sensitive for many and create turbulence that would be difficult for some, but it would also enrich and give meaning to the pursuit of wholeness to which EE is devoted. This revitalized initiative might not be for everyone, or it might not be for everyone at a particular moment. But for some, it might be just the right vehicle for personal growth. And for all of us, even if we were not actively involved at the moment, its existence would be a reminder that the integration of social justice with personal growth enhances both.