What to do when life is not fair

What to do when life is not fair

The need for fairness is among the deepest needs of the human soul. The yearning for fairness is something that seems to be implanted in us at birth, and becomes vivid when we grow to awareness of the social world beyond ourselves. From the time we are small children we keenly sense when others have not been fair to us, whether preferential treatment is given to others in the midst of game, when we are unjustly blamed for something we have not done, or when we receive less than our rightful share.  This powerful desire that the world and those in it be fair is a longing that remains with us for the rest of our lives and colors the texture of our experiences every day.

Where this need for fairness comes from is subject to ongoing, and perhaps irresolvable debate. Some argue that there is an innate moral sense in all of us that imposes the template of fairness on our world and our life experience. Children seem to know almost intuitively when they are not being treated fairly, without taking a course on ethics, and without extensive life experience. In a similar vain, and with a Darwinian twist, some theorists maintain that fairness is hard wired into the species as a mechanism to promote social cooperation which is necessary for group survival. Without the regulator of fairness, anarchy would reign and social groups would quickly perish. Likewise, others might argue that the need to be fair is pragmatically necessary in that it is a precondition for social order and peace. A world in which there is little or no fairness, or there is little hope for fairness, is a highly unstable world that invites perpetual rebellion and violence. “No justice, no peace.” Those who make the pragmatic argument for fairness are assuredly right, even if a moral sense is a genetic endowment.

Some might look at the call for fairness as being tinged with skepticism. People will invoke “fairness” as a fall back position when they cannot assert their power over others with total success and get their own way, which is what they would prefer.  For it is assuredly better to call for fairness in the hope that you will get half a loaf rather than no loaf at all — and sound high-minded at the same time.

Whatever the origins of fairness in the human experience, it something that all people, both sophisticated and unreflective alike, need very badly, long for, and seek to achieve for themselves and for others, often passionately.

As we grow from being children to adulthood, one of the most painful, chronically frustrating realizations we confront is that life is not fair. Frequently our deepest longings go unmet. It is as if God has played a cruel joke on the human species. On the one hand, He has created human beings and planted in their breast a deep longing for fairness. On the other, He has fashioned a world which is unfair, ensuring that there is a cosmic disconnect between the natural longings of humanity and the world in which he has been placed, like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that do not properly fit.  As Mick Jagger says, “you can’t always get what you want.” But when it comes to the unfairness we encounter in life we also often cannot get what we deserve, which is an existential frustration that cuts even deeper and pervades the human condition in the small and large arenas of life.

Unfairness cuts at least four ways: There is unfairness large and small, and unfairness which is created by human beings as opposed to those acts of unfairness that befall us by nature.  On the small side, we all know what it feels like to be slighted or unrecognized or uncredited by another for something we have accomplished.  We know what it is like to be deceived, duped, lied to or manipulated by another person, in the small, everyday circumstances of life. We all know what it feels like to have our dignity impugned. Sometimes we let these things pass. Sometimes we are driven to rectify them and set the record straight. But sensitive as we are to unfairness, we almost always feel the pain of these circumstances, as we physically feel the pain of the tiniest pinprick.

It is the large injustices of life, natural and man-made, as they impinge on us personally that I want to focus on. Perhaps, one of the starkest injustices experienced by human beings, and which we seldom dwell on, simply results from the sheer accident of being born at a specific time and place. We who are born in the rich and relatively safe countries partake of the opportunities to develop our human potentials, which people in past ages could scarcely imagine, and in ways which are foreclosed to billions of fellow human beings. I well remember taking a bus ride, – a very slow bus ride – from the center of Mexico City to the point where the sprawling megalopolis of what is now the world’s largest city ends.  There are currently estimated to be close to 30 million inhabitants of Mexico City. On that three hour trip one passes mountain after mountain covered with shanty towns constructed of tin, canvass, plasterboard and anything that can be turned into a shelter. The image that comes to mind is that these are human junkyards, with people so desperately poor that they subsist on barter, and can’t even walk into the cheapest discount store in the center city. But the horrific realization is not that these masses of people are very poor, but that with a very tiny Mexican middle class, there is no escape from their poverty. Their destiny is sealed and there is no way out. The mere accident of their birth is their life-long fate.

This experience was matched only by two weeks in Bombay, a bustling cosmopolitan city of 15 million, seven million of whom live out their lives on the street, in utter destitution, hordes condemned to a life of begging in order to survive. These experiences, especially as I am ready to board the plane and leave, bring into stark relief the realization that “there but for fortune go I.” It is simply an accident of birth, thoroughly undeserved, that I am here enjoying three meals a day, looking forward to a relatively long life, while billions of my fellows are there, toiling every day to overcome the pangs of hunger and the indignities of destitution.

But it is the unfairnesses closer to home that grab our attention and become the material out of which we fashion our own lives.  .

How many good people do their best to live morally upright lives and play by the rules, only to find that those with weaker moral scruples, become lavishly wealthy, while they, the decent and honest ones, struggle too hard to make ends meet? Indeed there seems to be no consistent or trustworthy correlation between living a moral life and reaping the material reward and comforts that we all aspire to.  How many parents do their best to raise their kids, only to find that their children become lost to drugs or delinquency? How many people are fated, because of the slightest chemical imbalance or genetic blip, to live out their lives laboring under schizophrenia or mental retardation? How many suffer ravaging illnesses that not only limit them physically but allows them to focus their mental and emotional lives on little else, and robs them of happiness? And every time I officiate at a funeral for person in her forties, or for a child, I become dramatically aware that their life is over, while I am still here. At such moments the unfairness of life becomes searingly and irrefutably clear.

But there is another dimension to our unfairness that makes it even more difficult to cope with. As social creatures, we can share our pains with others, and thereby to some degree mitigate their burden. But we are also individual creatures who in the very final analysis must bear the pains that are ours as the subjective loci of our experiences. I often reflect on how much of our pains we bear alone and in silence.  We all deep down in our hearts carry discontents, frustrations and pains issuing from a welter of psychological dynamics, — insecurities, doubts, obsessions and other elements within ourselves we don’t particularly like — that we could hardly ever express in words, or don’t care to, or despair of ever finding someone who would care to listen or to understand, because the pains are just too diffuse, personal or intimate. How many people are silently tormented by a sense of unfairness expressed in such thoughts as “if only I were richer, or smarter, or less lonely, or younger, or better looking, or 20 pounds lighter?”  I think Thoreau was insightfully brilliant when he observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” These silent torments are relatively small things, but they can loom large. They can play a more debilitating role in our psychic lives than they deserve, and in a sense are markers that comprise the structural unfairness built into the fabric of the human condition. How much fairer life would if we were not tormented with the niggling little feelings of self-doubt and self-criticism that gnaw away at our happiness.

Unlike the animals, whom we sense feel the pain of frustration, but not of unfairness or injustice, we have minds. And because we have minds, we are driven by the pain of unfairness to frame responses to the unjust condition in which we find ourselves. We seek to make the jigsaw puzzle fit. We seek at least through the power of explanation to find a way out.


My question this morning is how are we as humanists to respond to the unfairness of life? What attitude should we adopt?  What does the humanist world-view suggest?

One way to approach these questions is to look at the response of the religions, for responding to existential unfairness or injustice is precisely one of the most important things that religion is set up to.

But before I take a glance at the religions, I want to respond to one explanation rendered in some pop psychology circles, and from whom I strongly dissent. In what is a distortion of Freudian theories of the unconscious, there are those who maintain that all that happens to us is brought about because we some how consciously or unconsciously brought it upon ourselves. So if we have an unhappy love life, or children who turn out to be difficult or worse, or even if we develop cancer, all these painful realities are someone the result of wishes we harbor, if not conscious then assuredly unconscious. The implication of this line of reasoning is that if bad things, unfair thing befall us, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

While I assuredly accept that there is a mind-body connection, (even though this is new, unchartered and vague territory) and accept that our unconscious drives and wishes influence the texture of our lives — emotional, relational and otherwise — the problem I have with this reasoning is that it expands psychological causes too broadly to cover the entire map. It is too totalistic, and radically overdetermines the psychological factor in human affairs.  Therefore, I think this interpretation of why bad things happen to us is not only wrong, in some instances, it is morally vile, by blaming individuals for things that befall them for which they are not at fault. While our psychology certainly is a factor in determining what happens to us, it is never the only factor, however important it may be in certain circumstances.  In short, there are bad things that happen to us in life that are not our fault, and I think it is rather unsophisticated, if not a bit adolescent to think otherwise; to assume that we are so powerful as to be the sole authors of our fate.

Back to the religious response —

Looking first to the Asian religions, the question of life’s frustrations, moral and otherwise, lies at the heart of Eastern consciousness. Its resolution is found in the doctrine of “karma” which infuses both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Karma is a cosmic law written into the fabric of the universe, and it is essentially moral. According to the law of karma no bad deed goes unpunished; no good deed goes unrewarded. The ancients recognized that karma doesn’t work itself out in a single lifetime. But that posed no problems for Eastern religions, because death is not understood as the end point of life. Life and time to Eastern thought are cyclical, not linear as we in the West apprehend them. Hence, death is not an end, but the beginning of a new life cycle, until the recycled soul puts an end to the tedium of repetition of death and rebirth through liberation. Since one does not receive one’s just reward in this life, he can be assured that he will receive it in a future life.  So certain is the cosmic law of karma that even the gods cannot alter it, in fact, they are subjected to it, as are mortals.

In the Buddhist world-view, the reality of suffering, including the pain of injustice is even more central for human existence is coextensive with pain. Pain, in the Buddhist diagnosis results from desire and attachment to our wants. The prescription to this state of affairs is to transcend our attachment to things that in time will end up in frustration. In other words, it is to get beyond desire – the desire for happiness, for objects, for life itself. No desire, no pain. In fact, for Buddhism the idea that there is a self is a fiction, and we need to get beyond the ego, which is the center of our thought, feelings and desire.  Buddhism, is thoroughgoing, rigorous and radical, and though it has wisdom to teach us in the West, we as Westerners, I suspect, are not prepared to give up the idea of self — the assertion, development, and refinement of which lie at the center of Western consciousness, history and personal lives.

And so I turn briefly to the Western religions. The question of why there is unfairness pervading the human condition, of course. is relegated to the intention and role of God, the Creator of the world and of humankind.

The question as it is usually posed in theological circles is, How do you square the existence of a God who is all-knowing, all powerful and good with the existence of underserved suffering, which is the most gripping form of injustice? How could such a divine being, all powerful and all good, permit little children to die agonizing deaths, or allow wonderful, kind, loving people to contract cancer and die young, while morally obtuse, selfish SOB’s die in old age, relatively satisfied and at peace? How could a loving God permit  11 million innocents die in Hitler’s gas chambers, at least one million of them children.

In theological discourse this is known as “the problem of evil” and the inability of the religion to provide a compelling answer to this question is one of the primary reasons why I am here and not there.

There are many answers to the “problem of evil.” Among them is the central motif of an entire later book of the Hebrew bible, the Book of Job. Job is a righteous and prosperous man who loses everything. At first he is patient, and then he becomes bitter and turns against God, whom he holds responsible for his fate. His three friends try to console Job, but their appeals are uncompelling. Toward the end of the book, Job calls upon God who appears out of the whirlwind, and overwhelms Job with a sense of his incomparable power and awe, and demands to know of Job “Who are you to complain?”  “Where were you when I created the world”? To which Jon simply falls silent before the immeasurable power of the Almighty. In other words, to the existential question of why do the good suffer? Why do I suffer? the response given in the book is that the ways of God surpass human understanding. The implication is that there is divine justice in the universe, but God’s ways are so beyond our own that they surpass our ability to understand them. In other words, underserved suffering has a purpose known in the mind of God even if that suffering remains inscrutable and morally unjustified to us at our level. The best we can do, therefore, what we must do, is have faith that even if it’s not apparent to us, all things will work out justly at some remote time beyond ours.

The problem that I have with the Joban resolution to the problem of evil is simply what it proclaims. We must accept on faith that the injustice we perceive in the moment is not really what it seems to us to be. We must accept, contrary to both the evidence of our reason and our senses, that the pain we experience here and now is but a partial component of God’s just and benevolent plan that is unknown and unknowable to us. To accept this faith, we must utterly deny our own perceptions, and completely place our trust in an unseen reality which informs us that what we experience as unjust is a component of a mosaic which is just, though how is totally beyond our understanding. I know that there are people who hold this faith, and for whom it works productively in times of crisis and great suffering. But for me, it demands too great a denial of the experience of human beings. If there is a God, I could accept that many of his ways are going to be mysterious to us mortals. But I insist that God be not quite so mysterious. In order to believe, I need for there to be a greater recognizable overlap between God’s purposes and our own. I need the clues to be more numerous and tangible. For me, the gulf between God’s ways and my own is just too great, too unbridgeable for me to entertain the act of self-denial that such a faith requires.

There are other religious explanations for the existence of evil, all of which I find unconvincing as well.  One asserts that God created man with free will, therefore the unfairness we experience in life is a product of human free choice, and not ultimately  God’s. God is not responsible for evil and unfairness. We are.  There are problems with this too. Among them is the fact that it compromises the idea of God’s omnipotence. If man is truly free, then in those areas in which man has free choice, God’s power does not penetrate, and at least to that extent God is not all-powerful. In addition, the free will defense does not take into account those injustices imposed on human beings by acts of nature. It does not explain why children are born with Tay-Sachs disease, or innocent people die in earthquakes.

There are those who argue that we need to experience unfairness and evil in life in order to know what is good, and that the reality of evil, suffering and injustice serve as vehicles by which to build our moral characters. While it is logically true that there can be no knowledge of goodness without knowledge of evil, or fairness without unfairness, I have always found this line of reasoning to be a more than little cruel, and certainly unworthy of a beneficent God. For clearly, God could accomplish the same purpose by providing us with just a fraction of the evil and unfairness we are burdened with in life. To argue that the premature death of one’s child, or a protracted, agonized death by cancer is somehow redemptive or necessary for building the moral character of human beings, I find more than a little grotesque. In other words, there is suffering, and then there is gratuitous suffering that serves no good purpose.

So as a humanist, where does this leave me? What attitude are we to adopt in the face of life’s injustices, if we do not accept the presence of a divine custodian who assures us that the injustice that we see are not really what they seem to be, and that all will work out fairly in the end?

I think the humanist stance toward life’s unfairness is two-fold. Through my work with people who have been actively dying, I have become deeply impressed with how people in extemis can keep two ideas, two orientations, in mind at the same time. On the one hand, people who are moving inevitably toward the end, which is in view, are quite aware of what looms ahead. Though I think everyone who is actively dying is in partial denial of his or her fate, — as we all are, I have seldom met someone who was in total denial.

While there is an awareness of the end, at the same time, I have seen people able to rally their will, their energy and their optimism in the service of living to the greatest extent they can the life that still remains for them. In other words, one can accept the looming reality of dying, while focusing on life.

This experience I think parallels what can be our approach to the injustices of life. First, as with the acceptance of death, which is arguably the greatest unfairness of all, we need to accept that human history and human experiences teaches us that life is very often unfair, and sometimes grossly unfair. Efforts to gussy it up, or prettify the tragic elements of life, I think are to betray the human experience. It is an act of denial, and the Pollyannaish replacement of the real world with a wishful one.

At the same time that we can accept the brute unfairness we find in life, I think we ought not absolutize or romanticize it either. Though it is limited and very imperfect, human beings have been able to take our natural and powerful yearnings for fairness and justice and bend the human condition toward it, to at least a partial fulfillment. The fact that the need for fairness is a relentless drive in human beings should be a cause for hope, and inspiration. Albert Camus, humanist that he was, s once wrote, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” And that in my view is saying something extremely significant, indeed inspiring.

Where I am leading is this: Though we need to start with a sober and mature realization that things happen to us that are unfair, that realization should not be the end point, but the beginning for us.The antidote to life’s unfairness is action; action in the service of transforming an unjust situation into a just and fair one. Certainly with regards to the smaller, interpersonal undeserved slights we receive, we can work to set the record straight. We can bring the unfairness to the attention of the other, and in a spirit that seeks fairness, but goes beyond fairness to achieve reconciliation, we can set that small part of the universe aright.

When it comes to the structural injustices we confront, and when it comes to the larger social injustices which Ethical Culture has dedicated itself to redress, our response needs to be to reflect, strategize and organize. Sometimes we may succeed handily. At other times, we may succeed partially. And at other times we may fail miserably. But I have found that there is great liberating value in responding with action to the injustices we confront even though we may fail. Even though we may manifestly fail, to respond forthrightly with action and courage, is in a psychological, moral, spiritual and personal sense to wrest at least a partial victory in the face of the injustice we confront. The worse thing is wallow in impotence and despair.

When it comes to the issue of the grave unfairnesses of life — the premature death of a loved one, debilitating illness, severe misfortune — humanism needs to do its most difficult and demanding work.  There is no magic formula that can obliterate the pain we suffer in the face of these tragedies. They become part of our biography; part of us. But even here, though I speak humbly, I don’t think that we necessarily have to allow these tragedies to have the last word.

Human beings are complex and multilayered. We can give ourselves over to these misfortunes and let them do us in. Or we can resist being totally defined by our tragedies. We can recognize that our life is not coextensive with the injustices that have befallen us, and that our humanity extends more broadly than the worst experiences we have endured.   In the face of grave and undeserved misfortunes, we can struggle to accept them, then build a firewall around them, face outward, and affirm life to the greatest extent that we are able. Again the antidote is action, not passivity.

The most inspiring stories I know of are of people who struggle against the night of tragedy to affirm others, and thereby transcend, at least partially, the unfair suffering that would otherwise hold them in its grip and pull them down. I think of a woman confined to her wheelchair, who spends who free time at her typewriter composing letters for Amnesty International to win the freedom of prisoners of conscience. Or the person who has lost a child to a horrendous disease who transforms her pain into a cause to find a cure for the disease in order spare other children and parents the pain she has endured. Or, I think of the dying friends, who from their deathbeds express more concern for my well-being, than I can for theirs.  All these examples, and many, many more are profoundly inspiring testaments to the strength, resilience and courage of the human spirit in the face of otherwise shattering injustices. Such testaments are our greatest human treasure.

The antidote to injustice, again, is action. It is to take unfairness and transform it into a task. But humanism counsels one more thing implicit in what I have previously sketched. And that is that there is tremendous strength in the human bond. It is in the shared presence of others who care about us that we can find strength to answer the tragedies of life that we could not achieve alone.  With the caring support of others we can borrow from their strength, gain a glimpse of the universality of human tragedy, and break down the walls of isolation that might otherwise paralyze us into inaction.

For the humanist, the response to life’s unfairness is not to be found in rewards that will set the record straight in some future life, in some future time. Rather it is be found in courageous acceptance of the hard realities of life, in action, in courage, in the outward turn — and in the realization that the sustenance we may find all boils down to love, caring, friendship and humanity in the end. For some people this may not be sufficient. For others, it is all there is, and it is enough.


Dr. Joseph Chuman

15 February 2004

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