Do you feel life is fair? How we answer that question says more about us personally than we usually realize. Several weeks ago when I was researching the qualities of good relationships, I discovered a line of thinking that suggests that unless our relationships feel fair, they are headed for trouble. And if that’s true, does any time we feel that we’ve been treated unfairly ultimately mean we are headed down a troublesome path? Chances are, yes.
Let’s face it. Most of us have probably felt that life was unfair at least occasionally. Unfairness feels up close and personal when I go out of my way to help a friend and they barely notice. It also feels extremely unfair when I read about how some billionaires paid off politicians to make more money, while some people struggle just to buy prescriptions for pain relief. When we look at our lives or the world we often see all sorts of examples of how things do not seem just. And when we do, it pulls at our emotions and doesn’t feel fair at all.
And that’s a big part of the problem—fairness or lack thereof—usually feels very personal. When a relationship feels out of balance and unfair, we usually struggle to try to right the imbalance or slowly build up resentment and anger at those we can blame for causing the situation. That anger and resentment builds over time and before long we are entertaining John Gottman’s “The Four Horsemen” which usually lead to breakups and divorce. In the end, the best relationships feel fair and equal.
Making things even worse is that it doesn’t really matter if a relationship is actually unequal or unbalanced. It only matters what we believe about it. Unfortunately, when we believe it to be unfair, the same anger, resentment and blame will usually fester as much as in one that is pretty messed up.
For example, I have a younger sister who is convinced that our parents gave me every advantage while growing up and she got next to nothing. Despite the fact that our parents are long gone, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to change the past, this sister continues to express anger, frustration and victimization that feels very real to her. Was it true? Is it true? It feels very true to her so the “truth” of it doesn’t really matter.
What about in business? As a commercial real estate broker my husband Thom says every single client he encounters wants a “fair” deal. Unfortunately, one person’s opinion of fair very often doesn’t match up with another person’s. When that happens it is much more difficult for the transaction to ever come together. Only when both parties feel a win-win of sorts does the sale occur.
So is it possible that behind most feelings of unfairness, whether on the personal, the business, and even the global level, exist similar feelings of lack of control, powerlessness or desperation? After all, don’t we all want to feel like our lives matter, that we have value and worth, and have autonomy over our experiences? Whenever those feelings of value, worth and autonomy are challenged, circumstances feel unfair, and we struggle to find balance and harmony.
But it can’t be that simple can it? Some things really do appear to be unfair. After all, it can’t be fair that nearly 25,000 children around the world starved today. It feels so tragic and unnecessary on so many levels—is that what makes it seem unfair? Again, maybe it is that lack of control and powerlessness that many of us feel when confronted with such horror. We all crave to make sense of the world and issues like starving children challenge our sense of right and wrong.
Going further, our ideas of fairness often boil down to a perception of how the world, our lives, and our very existence are “supposed to be.” It likely feels very unfair to me if I marry expecting fidelity, and my husband cheats on me. It feels very unfair to me if I go into business with someone and they take advantage of me and steal my profits. It feels unfair to me that Viagra is covered by health insurance, but hearing aids aren’t. It feels very unfair when someone walks into an elementary school and kills children. When our sense of right and wrong and how the world is supposed to be is challenged, everything feels very personal and unfair.
But again, there’s more to the puzzle. Someone else who is raised on the other side of the country with entirely different set of rules and expectations about “how things should be” feels equally entitled to their sense of fairness. Some people actually believe it is only fair that women stay home, have babies and do whatever their husband’s say. Or what about someone on the other side of the planet? They may think it is only fair to do whatever is necessary to please their idea of God, including taking you with them on a suicide mission. Could fairness just be something we’re taught and then blindly believe?
With us all coming from different perspectives on “how things should be” is there any way for us to ever feel that life is fair? Surely it is impossible to get every one on the planet to follow my rules about how life should be and live up to my personal opinion? Maybe the one and only solution is for each of us to arrive at a personal understanding of the world that includes autonomy, value and worth for every single being, but especially ourselves. After all, when I am perfectly at peace, when I internally know my own value and place in the Universe, then needing others to agree with me doesn’t really matter. Only when I struggle to find myself, doubt my own worth, or feel Life is broken, do I need to control others and make Life Itself match my expectations.
So next time you start thinking, “Life isn’t fair,” ask yourself why you think that. Chances are good you are feeling that something or someone is challenging your value, your worthiness or your sense of the how the world is “supposed to be.” It’s likely that somewhere along the way you’ve decided that other people should say, do, or be a certain way to in order to make you feel Whole. In the end, no one else can tell if your sense of self and your view of the world really make you feel at peace, valuable and worthy, but it’s SMART to remember that until you do, the world will never seem fair.