the unfairness of it all

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.”

Indeed not.

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.

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The Virtue of Tenderness

For the past several weeks, I have been thinking about tenderness as expression of the virtue of charity. So I stumble across it everywhere–as you do with whatever happens to be uppermost in your mind. Reading about St Edward the Confessor a few weeks ago, I was struck by the description of him (on universalis) as “renowned for his generosity to the Church and to the poor and for his readiness to listen to his subjects’ grievances” (13 October 2014). Much might be said there about listening as tenderness, actually… But what struck me on the day, and what continues to fascinate me about the saints is the utter simplicity and everydayness of their great feats of virtue and holiness. It’s not a matter of heroic acts, usually; it is a matter of daily attention and love. As Pope Francis reminds us, living the gospel consists in sharing the good news of Jesus, and washing the feet of those who, according to the world’s reckoning, ought to be doing the serving.

I sometimes wonder, and have done for 20 years or so, whether I don’t just play it safe–love those who love me, care for those who will appreciate it, invite those who can invite me back. The summer after I graduated from college, I felt strongly that I wanted to go and serve where I would not be ‘appreciated’ or even understood. Having heard Mother Teresa’s story, I was inspired by the possibility of doing something that would push me beyond my comfort zone–way beyond. No academic skills needed; any such skills might rather give rise to intellectual needs that would be a liability. (Making sense of the world around isn’t always possible; the habit of trying can be a source of inspiration or despair for me, depending on the day…) Maybe I just wanted to get to a place where words failed and love had simply to be practiced. Following Jesus would have to be a way of life, a whole life, not just a way of talking.

Probably I will always worry about the wordiness of what I do. Eventually, though, I found another place where words usually fail and higher education doesn’t really give you an advantage: parenting. When the kids need you, need your attention and your patience, there isn’t a shred of theological knowledge that will magically allow you to attend  or to say the same thing calmly for the 47th time (as in “don’t bounce [throw, kick, etc.] the ball in the house” or “please pick up the legos strewn around the living room”). No: only grace can help then.

I had begun my thinking about tenderness (before the feast of St Edward the Confessor) with the idea that tenderness is the way that God shows love, quite a lot of the time. St Thomas Aquinas affirms that God does indeed love, even though God is free from the bondage of the passions (see Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves for a fantastic account of the passions). Love requires will, not warm fuzzies. And that might make love seem clinical and dispassionate. If St Thomas is right about the will (and he has tradition and psychology on his side), and God displays love purely (God is love, after all), then we would expect to see love shown in the most rational (perhaps) way in God’s acts of love.

But no. At times, God loves God’s chosen people like the most desperate jilted lover; at other times, God loves like a devoted mother or father. God’s love is anything but cold. And Jesus, likewise, shows divine love in action: healing the hopeless, listening (there it is again) to the despondent, weeping, suffering, dying, inviting the doubting to touch his wounds, and gently breathing the Spirit of God on his disciples. Divine love comes into the world as tenderness. There is very little that is properly heroic about Jesus’ ministry. (I enjoyed Tim O’Malley’s blog on the heroism, or lack thereof, in Jesus’ messiahship.)

So also, I have come to believe, charity–that highest and best of the theological virtues–can only be practiced in this fallen world as tenderness. Those small acts of love that make up the fabric of care for the vulnerable are the heroic acts that transform us. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, our patience with an insolent child is God’s patience, and by that tender love living within us we are gradually formed according to the image of him who gave himself for us. And then, why, we look just like the rest of the saints.

Deo gratias.