Do You Really Want Life to Be Fair?

Posted on May 8, 2014


Inigo:  Who are you?

Westley:  No one of consequence.

Inigo: I must know.

Westley: Get used to disappointment.


“I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.”  Joe Walsh


“I made lemonade with the lemons You sent me.”  Bob Halligan, Jr.


“Upon us all, a little rain must fall.”  Robert Plant/Jimmy Page


“You can’t always get what you want.”  Mick Jagger/Keith Richards


Like most people, I prefer to be the hero in my own stories.  Consequently, I hate putting out posts where I read it myself and I sound shallow and entitled.  Oh well, I preach vulnerability, so here it goes.  A couple of Saturdays ago, I had invited a fairly large group of friends over for some volleyball and a barbecue.  It was the first time I was going to get to play this year (between travel, holidays, and other commitments there had not been an opportunity), and I was really looking forward to it.  Most of the RSVP’s had been in the affirmative, and it looked like it was going to be a fun time.  The back yard was ready, and the grocery shopping was done.  Then on Friday, I heard that rain was predicted for Saturday.  Now if you do not live in San Diego you might not appreciate this, but it rarely rains here.  California is in the middle of a serious drought.  “April showers” does not describe our weather.  Without the Colorado River water, we are a desert.  Given that context, my immediate reaction upon learning that rain was forecast was, “that is not even fair.  It rains a few days a year here, and it is going to rain on the day I have planned an outdoor party.”

On further reflection, I must acknowledge generally being the beneficiary of life not being fair. I grew up in a nice middle class family.  My dad always maintained that we were poor, but we were never without.   My wife and I are both in good health.  Through 30 years of marriage, nothing life threatening has happened to either of us.  My adult children live nearby, and have achieved a level of independence from us.  At midlife, I had the blessing of being able to change careers and do what I really felt called to do.  Our suburban tract home is a more comfortable residence than what large portions of the earth’s population are able to enjoy.  We even had 20 of our friends ready to come over and spend the day with us.  Life is not fair, and we are the beneficiaries.  As it turned out, the rain even let up, and by afternoon, we had the party as planned.  Any lament about wanting life to be fair is really saying I want things to go my way all of the time.

The fact that you are reading this probably says some similar things about your own life.  My supposition is that if you are reading my blog, you probably have food and a place to live.  You have access to a computer, pad, or smart phone and access to the internet.  You probably live in a country where the government does not suppress free access to information on the internet.  Whatever your past hurts and current struggles, there are ways in which you have been the beneficiary of life’s unfairness.

So where am I going with this?  I am still working on that.  Here is my current best thinking about this.  The first thing involves cultivating an attitude of thankfulness in ourselves.  Even as I write this, it feels absurd that I should feel picked on because it rained when my life is overflowing with blessings.  Second is recognizing the agency that we do have to close the gap between how things are and how we would like them to be.  There is a phenomenon called learned helplessness that was first observed in psychological experiments with animals.  If the subject was put in a situation where there was truly nothing they could do to avoid an aversive stimulus (e.g. a shock), when they later were given the opportunity to escape it, they did not even try.  It was as if they had learned that there was nothing they could do in one situation, therefore why bother trying in another.  Even if there have been times and situations in your life where you could not avoid a bad outcome, it is important to not let that rob you of your sense of agency (i.e. your ability to take effective action).  One of my basic beliefs which infuses how I do therapy is that people are resilient and able to act effectively.  I have seen people overcome tremendous obstacles and trauma.  Third, is making lemonade.  How can you make the best out of the circumstances that you are coping with?  How do you maximize the hand you have been dealt?

Most everyone who has been involved in any sort of 12 step program is familiar with the serenity prayer generally attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr.  Many people only know the first three lines.  There is more to it.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


As Scott Peck succinctly observed, “Life is difficult.”  Or as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards observed, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you can get what you need.”  We have to deal with the world as it is and not as we want it to be.  We have to do life on life’s terms.  We still need to muster our courage where we have agency, and differentiate those things from the areas over which we have no control.

For my Christian readers, I would assert that none of us truly want life to be fair.  We do not want to get what we have coming.  We have all fallen short of the glory of God.  Justice is when you get what you deserve.  Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve.  Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.  It is good to be on the receiving end of mercy and grace.  Life is not fair: praise the Lord.