Does the Moral Arc of the Universe Bend Toward Justice? 

Reflections on a 45-year career in mental health.

Former President Obama has frequently quoted Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of history is a long one, but it bends toward justice.”  Is this march toward justice as inevitable as the King quote seems to suggest? I have worked in various capacities both directly and indirectly with people who are coping with a variety of mental health challenges. As I reach the end of my career, I have found myself pondering whether my professional lifetime has been long enough for me to detect this arc. At first glance the evidence is mixed.

On the one hand, the mental health challenges of young people appear to have become more common and serious. Today’s college students need higher levels of social and emotional support than those who enrolled 20 years ago. The problems we used to consider serious in our K-12 schools, such as chewing gum and talking out in class, seem quaint in comparison to the ones that school counselors face daily, such as self-harm and weapon carrying.

On the other hand, I recall a time when there was no support of any kind for LGBTQ persons at any educational level. School staff members could, and were, fired simply for giving honest answers to questions about sexual orientation. The possibility that a student might be non-gender conforming, if acknowledged at all, was treated in a derogatory manner.

For context, it may be worth reflecting on the entire quotation that inspired Dr. King. The 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

The original Parker quote suggests that the march toward justice is not easily visible. Perhaps we are wise to temper our expectations, recognizing that a single lifetime does not provide an adequate perspective. Or, perhaps, we can act to bend the arc ourselves as opposed to passively waiting and watching.  For example, many schools have taken an active role in developing policies to protect non-gendering conforming students, and school counselors have been instrumental in implementing these policies.  It continues to be my great privilege to work every day with colleagues and students who, in ways large and small, are bending the arc toward justice.

Kirchner headshot.jpgGrace Kirchner is a clinical psychologist. She has trained school and mental health counselors at the University of Puget Sound since the mid-seventies.