Anyone who has children has heard “it’s not fair” countless times. I remember reading in one of those “how-to” parenting books that the sense of injustice develops early. I didn’t realize quite how long it lasts. Actually, I think it never really goes away. We just stop saying it out loud. Somewhere along the way, the message “stop whining” got through, and we fell silent. As for me, I internalized the response I always got when I complained about the unfairness of it all: “life’s not fair.”
But what I have come to realize, perhaps quite late in the game (maybe everyone else already knows this…) is that it’s never exactly fair. I just don’t recognize the unfairness of it all quite so clearly when I am the beneficiary of the failure of perfect justice in the world. Life is not fair. It’s not fair that my daughter should have Down Syndrome. It’s not fair (on a far smaller scale) that my son should be color-blind. Things are just not fair. It is also, however, not fair that I should be born into privilege and others not. It’s not fair that my children have more than they need, while others lack the basic necessities of life. It’s not fair that my family and I are safe, and families in places near and far are in peril. On balance, the general unfairness of it all tends to be in my favor rather than not.
I want to impress upon my children this sense of unfairness, to help them to see the bigger picture. My mother meant well, I think. (Maybe she just wanted me to shut up, but I’ll go with the more charitable interpretation.) But her words only led me to believe that life was always going to be a struggle against the general unfairness of it all, on a very personal level. She never connected my sense of injustice in my own small world with the injustice I saw in the big, wide world. I remember distinctly having a conversation with her when I was maybe 7 or 8, about hunger in Africa. I wanted to send food. She said that it would never get to the people who needed it. I wanted to send money. She said the same thing would happen. I was at a loss. She said, “You know what you can do? You want to be a doctor when you grow up. You can go and help then.”
That response left me incredibly frustrated. I wanted to do something. The sense of injustice natural to children from an early age can certainly open onto bigger horizons. “Life’s not fair” is absolutely true. It’s also incredibly demoralizing. I’ve said it in exasperation to my son, and now think maybe I shouldn’t have. Because unfairness is not how it should be, nor how it has to be. Unfairness persists because we let it. Because I let it. “Life’s not fair” might well be a seed from which bitterness will grow, and insecurity, and greed, and a desire to protect what we have from the Great Unfairness that threatens us. It turns what can be a powerful force for good into an excuse for self-protection.
“It’s not fair,” you say? No, it’s not. What can we do to make it so? Let’s start now.