Thursday, October 16, 2008

That isn't Fair!

"Expecting the world to treat you fairly
because you are a good person
is a little like expecting the bull not to attack you
because you are a vegetarian." --Dennis Wholey

"That isn't fair!" I am often surprised at myself when I use this phrase. I am even more often surprised with others when they say something along those lines. It is not surprising coming from children, I suppose, for as children we have not yet learned the truth about fairness. As children we can still yet believe that fairness will govern our lives, though it doesn't take many formative years to begin bruising that belief. Usually it is adults that surprise me when they speak of things being fair or unfair. Of course, I understand our desire to apply fairness as a concept to our lives, but by now most of us have realized that fairness is more the exception than the rule. Fairness is an ideal, it is something to strive for, but for the most part it is only an external and subjective judgement and not a governing property. More simply put, fairness is something we all wish for, and many of us strive for, but most of the time life isn't fair.

Perhaps this impulse is vestigial; a soft lingering whisper down the years from our childhood to our adulthood. As parents we often tell our children to 'play fair'. And we should, no doubt. But as parents we also watch our children come gradually to the same dawning practical realization - life ain't fair. There are bullies in this world. Some kids are smarter than others. Some don't have enough food or a warm coat and others think nothing of wasting extravagant quantities of everything. There is cancer and war and natural disaster. There is crime and abuse. And no matter what some television evangelist says, bad things happen to good people too. If the wages of sin are death, it is just as sure that the wages of life are inequity. Life ain't fair.

Yet when I listen to the words people choose when discussing events in their life, it is surprising how often I hear people express surprise and even shock at how unfair life can be. On some level, despite intellectual awareness that life cannot be fair, we hold on to a belief that it is. We express surprise when life is not fair to us or others, and if the issue is upsetting enough we organize to protest or raise money to fight back, or try to pass legislation that mandates fairness. Though we know in our hearts that life ain't fair, we feel a strong need to fight for fairness. What kind of world would we live in if we could not even cling to the hope that life will deal fairly with us?

It seems to me that this dichotomy in our zeitgeist is healthy in the abstract. It gives us hope, and allows us to balance our perspective between a grim realism and a grounded optimism. The idea that we can expect life to be fair is so clearly wrong that many of the big disappointments in life have such an impact because we expect 'fair' treatment when we can have no reasonable expectation of fairness. But at the same time, were we to choose to expect life always to be unfair we'd probably never leave the house. Somewhere there is a good balance between the realistic awareness that fairness is not to be expected and the hopeful expectation that people will at least try to be fair to one another. And in practice, the only fairness we can really bring about is our own fair treatment of others.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." --Mahatma Gandhi

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Sunshine on Discovery Bay

Sunshine on Discovery Bay
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