Growing up number six in a family with eight kids, I put a great deal of stock in fairness. There was constant jockeying for my share of whatever was on offer—time, energy, dessert, privileges. I remember wailing at my parents more than once, “That’s not fair!”
When I think about the engine that drives suffering—be that suffering local disputes or family fights—that engine is often powered by a sense of unfairness. “She should have let me have it,” “That’s not what Dad promised,” “They should trust us,” “He started it,” “We should have had input.” Every single one of these statements asserts that there’s an objective standard of fairness which should be recognized and honored. Unfortunately, what’s fair often depends on where you’re standing. What looks fair at the level of a provincial ministry doesn’t feel fair in a rural village. What looks fair to a parent doesn’t feel fair to a child. What looks fair to an administrator doesn’t feel fair to an employee.
It’s not just about our perspective or some abstract standard of justice, though. The idea of fairness is knotted in with our expectations and desires for the future. One friend calls expectation a “premeditated resentment” because whenever we hold too tightly to our ideas about how life should unfold, then it feels unfair when our desires aren’t met. This leads us to interpret another’s behavior as an intentional harm when it’s often simply a different understanding. What gives it a charge is our emotional reaction to being denied something we want.
Now, just to make the idea of fairness even more interesting and complex, our self-worth enters the fray. If you don’t treat me the way I think I deserve to be treated, it must be because you undervalue me. That’s really what made me wail at my parents all those years ago: the fear that I was less beloved because I wasn’t allowed the same freedoms or privileges as my older siblings. That my mom didn’t care that my brother started the whole fight. That I really deserved that extra dessert.
All of this makes the idea of fairness a snarled mess. The only way we can extricate ourselves from ceaselessly chewing on questions about what we deserve, who’s to blame and whether we’re valued is to look at the bigger picture. Can you imagine yourself in the other person’s position? Can you see the bigger picture? Can you understand that other people’s choices are usually not about you?
Now, a heartfelt plea. Feel like throwing a tantrum because something isn’t fair? Don’t. If you want the utmost respect from others, behave with the utmost respect to others. As my mom used to say, if you want to be treated like a big kid, act like a big kid.
Of course, the real truth is that I never wanted things to be fair. I wanted to be special. Sound familiar? As my sister would say, get over it.