‘You can’t do that! It’s not fair!’
‘I never get a ‘fair shake!”
How many times have we heard (and maybe even said) these things? When one is especially frustrated about the timing of events, or the pile-up of numerous ordinary stressors, it’s hard to feel that life is ‘fair.’
Generally, you will hear one of two responses to a person’s cry for fairness. One is very definitive and reactive: ‘Life is NOT fair. So get over it.’ The other isn’t really a response so much as a refusal to answer the question at all, thereby implying that life, indeed, is not fair.
People who constantly allow themselves to feel that life isn’t fair tend to think like victims. When I say ‘victim,’ I don’t mean that somebody actually did something wrong to you. In that case, you truly are a victim. We’ve all been victims of someone, or something, at one time or another. (I’m reminded of that great Mary Chapin Carpenter song, ‘Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.’) But there’s a difference between allowing yourself to feel like a victim in appropriate circumstances, and feeling like a victim all the time.
A person who acts like a perpetual victim will stop engaging in life. He or she will develop a sense of futility, hopelessness and, on top of it all, anger. Anger at’what or whom, exactly? Anger at life. It makes no sense.
The question, ‘Is life fair?’ assumes that life is like a person, and can ‘choose’ to be just or unjust. It doesn’t take much to know that this assumption is ridiculous and flat-out wrong. Life, in and of itself, is neither fair nor unfair. Only PEOPLE can be fair or unfair. “Fairness” presupposes a set of concepts, or ideas, about justice, grounded in more fundamental ideas about the nature of man and reality. Philosophers have debated these concepts for centuries. But, no matter how you define fairness or unfairness, these qualities are something only a human being—with consciousness and the ability to think, act and make decisions—can practice. Life possesses no consciousness. It simply ‘is.’
The act of living does not guarantee fairness or unfairness. That ‘guarantee’ (as far as it goes), depends upon the use of your own mind, your ideas, and the choices made by other people around you. Those who look externally to “life” for fairness will feel betrayed and disappointed. Those who grasp the concepts of fairness by looking internally to their own minds (and who demand the same of others), will feel something much more positive.
Think of all the frustrations in daily life! There’s traffic, weather, inconsiderate people, computers and cell phones that won’t cooperate, and cars that won’t start. Are these symptomatic of life ‘not being fair,’ or are they nothing more than problems in need of solutions? Herein lies the difference between depression and a healthy mental attitude! Emotionally healthy people tend to look at problems as nothing more than things that need to be solved. To them, the universe is no mystery. No, they don’t expect to have all the answers, but they do expect answers to be possible, and they’re not sidetracked by notions of life being ‘unfair’ or ‘out to get them.’
In a sense, I suppose that it all boils down to not taking things personally. Nobody is out to get us. Events that are annoying or even deeply upsetting simply are what they are. These frustrations are just the particular challenges with which we need to deal today, this month or this year. We have a choice: We can either take these things personally and react with anger that wears us down and makes no sense, or we can work on finding solutions, coping techniques or whatever’s required to either live with it or put it behind us.
Sometimes the words we use affect how we look at things. When I talk with people in psychological counseling, I try to express things as ‘challenges’ rather than problems. This sends a subtle message to the subconscious that solutions DO exist and that we can usually find them. It also implies that life is not a vale of tears through which we are to trudge, plow and suffer, but rather a series of challenging events and constructive conquests.
Don’t misread this as advocating the ‘get over it’ approach—that we all must somehow cope with life’s supposed unfairness. If there’s anything we need to ‘get over,’ it’s the mistaken idea that life can ‘choose’ to treat us one way or another. It’s not a healthy way to think, and the resulting sense of helplessness and anger just isn’t worth it.