That’s not fair! We’ve heard it said or said it ourselves dozens of times, and we’re usually right. Life’s not fair.
One example is my sister-in-law. I used to envy her. How did she end up making so much money by starting her own business? Why did her book sell so many more copies than mine, when I was the one who had always wanted to be a writer? Why did she get to walk onstage in a hot dress to receive a Woman of the Year award while I stayed home in a ketchup-stained tee shirt taking care of whiny kids? Not to mention that she was gorgeous. It wasn’t fair!
What could possibly be fair about the least qualified brown-noser getting the promotion, the humble, quiet hard working person getting laid off or the CEO who runs a company into the ground receiving a golden parachute multi-million dollar retirement package?
There’s nothing at all fair, no matter how you look at it, about childhood cancer, abusive parents or being born into poverty.
There’s something in all of us that yearns for fairness. We believe the best qualified people should get promoted, hard work should be rewarded, and people who observe healthy habits shouldn’t get cancer. We believe this world should be a just and equitable place, and when it’s not we’re indignant.
It’s a good thing to yearn for fairness, to fight injustice and to strive for a more equitable world, so what I’m going to say next might seem like a contradiction.
We need to relinquish our expectations of fairness and our righteous indignation when those expectations aren’t met. If we don’t, a sense of being treated unfairly can nurture bitterness and hinder our enjoyment of everyday life. We end up developing a negative mindset that prevents growth.
But how do we get past this mindset? How do we relinquish expectations we are so passionate about?
The first thing we need to do is realize that some of those things we thought were unfair might not be so unfair, after all.
Take, for example, my sister-in-law. It wasn’t fair that she got all those accolades and attention while I sat with her parents (my in-laws) in the audience clapping when she received her trophy, was it? Actually, maybe it was fair. When I got past my jealous fit, I started thinking about all she went through to create her own business; of the time her company laid her off and she was out of work for a while; of the bitter divorce she went through.
Would I have been willing to put in that much work and go without a paycheck for so long if I’d been laid off? Would I have exchanged my good marriage for her awful one? What’s more, I made the choice to stay home with my kids. It wasn’t some predicament foisted on me by somebody else. Why was I feeling resentful about it?
This put things in a different perspective. My sister-in-law worked hard. We both made different choices. It wasn’t a matter of fairness versus unfairness. I might have been a little jealous, but that didn’t mean I’d gotten an unfair shake. If I continued to dwell on the perceived unfairness over her accomplishments, my gratitude for my own life would be diminished.
I found out years later that at the same time I was envying her she was jealous of me, a stunning discovery because that possibility had never crossed my mind.
When we believe we haven’t gotten a fair shake, it helps to take a look at what other people have been through or are going through to get where they are. We need to ask ourselves, would I be willing to give up what they gave up to reach my goals? If we don’t know the person well enough to know what they’ve been through or what they gave up, we might want to find out. The position a person happens to be in currently is not the entire story of that person’s life. There is most likely pain, hardship or insecurity that we know nothing about.
Another thing we need to realize is that sometimes unfairness is biased for us instead of against us. I could have been born into a different kind of household, but I was born into a middle class one that provided for my physical needs. My parents, who never finished college, expected me to go to college and they made sure I was headed in that direction. There are a million other things I could name that have given me an unfair advantage over the years.
If I got exactly what I deserved all the time, there would have been plenty of instances when I deserved less than what I got. One example was when my mom got a job at a small junior college after my dad lost his job. She was working hard to put us through college, and being able to get free tuition at this college because she worked there was a big bonus. At the same time she was working every day to feed and educate us, I hooked up with a group of students who were crazy enough to inhale marijuana through a large “bong” set up in the middle of campus. In broad daylight.
What was I thinking? I could have gotten kicked out, or worse, arrested. This was the era of baby boomer hippies, and there were times when I skated through on pure luck. I’m glad I didn’t get what I deserved, but emerged instead with a college degree and the good sense to swear off drugs and other detrimental behavior.
The Life Isn’t Fair complaint loses some of its punch when we realize we’ve sometimes gotten better than we deserve. But there are still times when life truly isn’t fair, when we really do get the short end of the stick.
How can we deal positively in these situations?
When I believe things aren’t fair, I think of David Ring. Born with cerebral palsy, David was bright enough to be placed in a mainstream public school but lacked the coordination to keep up with the other students.
One morning David’s teacher told the children they could go outside and play as soon as they completed their assignments. One by one children finished working and dashed outside until the classroom was empty except for David, whose fingers were slow and clumsy as he laboriously wrote out each answer. But the anticipation of recess kept him focused. At last he finished and laid his paper triumphantly on the teacher’s desk.
“It’s time for recess to be over now, David. The other children will be coming back in soon,” the teacher told him.
David, inconsolable, cried so long and hard that his mother had to be called to pick him up from school. In the car between sobs, David said, “Why couldn’t I go outside and play like the other kids? Why do I write so slow? Why am I like this?”
His mother replied, “David, it doesn’t do any good to ask why. You won’t get any answers. You need to ask is What. What can you do to be your best? What can you do to glorify God with your life? What can you do to turn this situation around? Don’t be bitter. Be better.”
David, according to the world’s standards, was born to lose. He not only suffered the physical hardships that went along with having cerebral palsy. He was orphaned at 14 and was forced to live with a host of different relatives. But David went on to become a sought after motivational speaker, author and evangelist who has inspired millions with his story. He is known for asking his audiences, “I have cerebral palsy. What’s your problem?”
Now when I think life is unfair, I don’t ask why. I ask what. What can I learn from this situation? What can I do to bring about justice if injustice is the issue? What can I do to be my best?
Life isn’t fair. Accept it. Then ask What.