F is for Fair

F is for Fair
“It’s not fair!”
Can you recall when you first began to use that phrase? I place mine somewhere around age 8. The awareness that life was unfair was my version of getting kicked out of my own Garden of Eden, my own loss of innocence. I’m sure there were many losses in my life prior to age 8, but this clear and righteous articulation is one of the great truths of human experience and marked a coming of age for me.
I remember a story I heard years ago about a child who comes home from Sunday School with a drawing. His mother was used to this as they often drew pictures of Bible stories, but she couldn’t figure this one out as it showed a big car with two people in the back seat as someone drives them through a massive gate. When asked about this the child said, “Oh, that is the Angel of the Lord driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden.” I have often had the fantasy that the dialogue in the back seat of that vehicle included various versions of, “It’s not fair!”, along with a lot of mutual recrimination as to whose fault the whole thing was, but that’s another story.
Now, many years later I have a question for the 8 year old me: “What did you expect?” In hindsight I suppose it was simply that if one knew and played by the rules there would be a predictable and acceptable outcome. I think this is when I discovered the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: There is suffering. Not liking this fact I did what Jack Kornfield describes as “going to war with the way things are.” I kept trying to storm the gates of Eden. In the process I conveniently forgot the part of the story where God puts an angel with a flaming sword at the gate to prevent such delusional and ineffective regressions.
I then spent a number of years wandering in the Wilderness of Entitlement. Somehow this suffering thing was a mistake that would be corrected any minute now. I even printed up T-shirts that said on the front: “Don’t they know who I am?”; and on the back: “Who do they think they are?” I sold a lot of tee-shirts, but only to other wanderers. Slowly, but surely exhaustion set in and I began to consider another option: maybe I could accept things “the way they are”. I would get a glimpse of something I didn’t quite have a name for and I liked it, but then the required vulnerability and hard work required seemed to be too much. So, it was put on the T-shirt and try to make the same efforts have a different outcome. Have you seen this movie?
This cycle repeated itself more times than I care to remember, but then one day I saw clearly certain consistent themes in my wanderings. There was a difference between reacting and responding. Basically, reacting is a version of my 8 year old: “It’s not fair.” And responding is a based on not taking things personally. When I reacted to the elements of my life I usually didn’t like the outcome. And, when I was somehow able to respond to them there was a kind of peace. I realized that the key to this difference was whether or not I was willing to accept responsibility for my internal and external experience. There was, and is, still suffering. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is a kind of fairness to life, I’m just using a different kind of measurement. I notice that sometimes I get more than my fair share, and sometimes I get less – whatever that means on any given Tuesday. The difference is that the more I notice and respect these realities the less demanding I am about getting more, and the more I was able to be present with the hard stuff. I wear the T-shirt a lot less often now.
Coming soon: G is for Germ

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22 Comments on “F is for Fair”


  1. Brilliant timing, thank you! I guess that’s because we sometimes have to relearn the same lessons over and over, huh? :)

  2. Todd Hayen Says:

    As usual great stuff Allen! Loved it….reminded me of my initial years in Hollywood…after the honeymoon of thinking I would take the town by storm…my wife got the personal license plate, “NSIWBE”..”Nobody Said It Would Be Easy”…and I got the matching pair, “NSIWBF”…”Nobody Said It Would Be Fair”…how true, but we kept thinking we would be the exception…never happened, so we finally chucked the plates thinking they were bringing us bad luck…that didn’t work either.

    Good blog, keep them coming!! Thanks!!

  3. Lori Richards Says:

    Your post made me chuckle about the myriad of little initiations we have in life, like your 8 year old awakening to the unfairness of life. I remember one too, at about the same age, when I got the part of the narrator in a little production of the Sound of Music. Didn’t they know I was born to be Maria?! It was an outright crime! After that I trudged longer that I’d like to admit through the land of proving them wrong. Thanks for your wit and wisdom, Allen.


  4. I liked the blog. I did read it and I know why you sent it to me. :). I appreciate it too. I am getting better at not reacting. I assessed what I could do about the money issue and figured it out. Of course, I spent a lot of time saying it wasn’t fair before I got to that point! Now I just have to think about how I am reacting rather than responding to the issues in this thesis. I am less volatile these days about the topic :o). Things are a lot worse over there, but I know that I need to finish this and get it in! Thanks for a brilliant post. Looking forward to G is for Germ! I think I need to read more Jack Kornfield.
    Noelle

  5. Jerry DiPego Says:

    ‘Reacting’ or ‘responding’ – thanks, Allen. That’s a very clear keeper.
    Jerry

  6. Radish Leaf Says:

    Very thought-provoking, Allen.

    The point about the difference between reacting and responding is nicely put. And I loved the image of the angel of the Lord driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden.

    The transition from fair/unfair to reacting/responding is interesting. In an almost sleight of hand way, the text moves from a desire for fairness to a sense of entitlement. How did it happen that you (read: most of us, we) went from believing that we were entitled to fairness — to thinking that we were entitled per se?

    But behind that, where did the concept of fairness come from? Every child I’ve known had it, although I rather doubt that the notion of fairness is not evenly distributed through all cultures and all classes. On the other hand, I wonder if there isn’t some universal phase of childhood development that hinges on the concept. (I don’t know a lot about childhood development.)

    Wikipedia notes that: The personification of justice balancing the scales of truth and fairness dates back to the Goddess Maat, and later Isis, of ancient Egypt. The Hellenic deities Themis and Dike were later goddesses of justice. Themis was the embodiment of divine order, law, and custom, in her aspect as the personification of the divine rightness of law. However, a more direct connection is to Themis’ daughter Dike, who was portrayed carrying scales. Ancient Rome adopted the image of a female goddess of justice, which it called Justitia.

    Drilling down a little further (still in Wikipedia), one finds: Maat was the anciet Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice. Maat was also personified as a goddess regulating the stars, seasons, and the actions of both mortals and the deities, who set the order of the universe from chaos at the moment of creation.

    Apparently the concept of fairness goes back quite a ways and, seemingly, always valued as a good thing. As a culture, we certainly teach it that way to children. Which, in recent years, I’ve come to wonder about. Why? Why don’t we commonly and explicitly teach children that “there is no such thing as a’ level playing field’ anywhere outside of sports and even there every player is always trying to gain an advantage, i.e. tilt the playing field, in order to win”? (Why don’t we ever tell children that “all adults in our culture lie, including the one who is telling you this”?)

    What I’d love is to have you to expand upon or just explain a bit further your sentence, “What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is a kind of fairness to life, I’m just using a different kind of measurement.” I was with you until the opening clause of that sentence. “There is a kind of fairness to life.” There is? Really? By what means of measurement?

    I am speaking very literally when I say that I don’t see anything about Life or life as it is conducted on this planet that is “fair”. Beyond the simplest things, I find the concept of very little use if not actually misleading. I try to treat people with kindness and respect and give “full measure, pressed down and running over”. I suppose therefore that I usually treat people “fairly”, although I honestly don’t know what “fair” means on any given Tuesday — or on any other day.

    As far as I can tell, I always receive more than my “fair” share, if fair means take the whole pie and divide it equally among the number of people “at the table”. I’ve never been hungry or homeless or living in fear for my life because of circumstances far beyond my control (such as war). Is that fair? It’s mostly just a fact of birth, of what used to be known as being all a matter of “which bed you were born in”, and that doesn’t seem to have any aspect of fairness to it.

  7. Josh Says:

    I had the same reaction to the same sentence as Radish Leaf. I don’t think life is fair, or unfair. (Though the 8-year-old inside me disagrees violently.)

    We were just at a charity event in old Pasadena this afternoon and evening. It was held at the Laurabelle A. Robinson house, whose grounds are simply obscene in their display of wealth and excess — the sort of thing you’d see in a resort hotel. Formal and informal gardens, fountains, a restaurant-size wood-burning pizza oven, several bars, seating areas for 20-30 people at time tucked in every corner, a teepee, room for probably 1000 guests…it’s just amazing.

    I was sitting with Patricia, gazing out across the infinity pool at the pink sky and the sun setting over the old Pasadena Freeway and thinking “How do people get this rich?” And really thinking, “It’s not fair.”

    And then I got to the “So what?” part. Who said it was going to be fair? “Fair” isn’t really the issue (except perhaps in court). On a personal level, “fair” just gets in our way. Keeps us from seeing clearly, and makes choice more difficult.

    We’re mostly all just doing the best we can with what we have. And if we don’t like what we’re getting, we can make different choices.

    But “fair” just locks us into our position. Lets us rail against our circumstances. Lets us blame everyone and everything around us for how things turned out.

    You once told me “You always have less control than you want to have — and more than you think you do.” That little phrase has come back to me time and again, and has helped unstick me, free me from the idea of “fairness”, and remember that I have choices.

    Thanks for that, and for the great post above.

  8. Beth Newcomer Says:

    One day, you said to Don and me, “Fair went out with training wheels on your bike.” It comes back to me often.

  9. dostoevlover Says:

    Yes, life is not fair, and I guess that is something everyone becomes more or less aware of eventually (or not). Do men feel that more than women? Maybe as a female, I feel sort of born with a sense of unfairness having been built in structurally from the beginning, I mean, who thought up all this internal tubing I have to deal with? And then there is the acceptance stuff: I myself would make a bad buddhist mainly because I am almost just as much afraid of boredom as I am of unfairness. I like the idea of raging somehow, as Dylan wrote about it – as long as it keeps things interesting, which is also built in to the whole situation I guess.


  10. “There was a difference between reacting and responding. Basically, reacting is a version of my 8 year old: “It’s not fair.” And responding is based on not taking things personally. When I reacted to the elements of my life I usually didn’t like the outcome. And, when I was somehow able to respond to them there was a kind of peace. I realized that the key to this difference was whether or not I was willing to accept responsibility for my internal and external experience. There was, and is, still suffering. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is a kind of fairness to life, I’m just using a different kind of measurement. ”
    Allen,
    The quote from your posting, as well as, the vignette of the Angel of the Lord driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden spoke to me. They made me realize I have moved from reacting to unfairness to responding when I can actively be an instrument to bring about change in situations I am able to. I also do not always have to respond. The latter times are when unfairness occurs to directly affect me based on anothers deliberate actions. With time and life experience, I find I am able to take that step back, take a deep breath, relax and be an observer of the offender. I cut a person slack realizing through my work sitting in the therapy context with many many people that not all actions are deliberate. Also, many actions come out of a life of abuse by others and are a defense mechanism at work to seek to protect oneself. There are many other explanations for why we all are not always the healthy, whole person ideal that we may want to be.
    In the not reacting place I find I am able to let go. I am able to feel compassion towards people I used to have intense negative feelings towards. It is in this place of silence and arms open that I find the other person is the most able to receive kindness and a bridge beween us can begin to form. This has been my passage in my understanding for me what non-violence means.
    Love to your home,
    Kathleen

  11. Thomas Elsner Says:

    Hi Allen — I like this piece. That word “Fair” — yes, since I’ve had kids now for 9 years I can especially relate to the child like nature of this word. Basically the phrase “its not fair” or the sense that life should be fair is, it really is, like a 3-4 year old reaction to reality. So, I get it!! yes! If more people had your attitude there would be a lot less anger and simmering poisonous resentment in the world. Great reflections!

    Acceptance of how things are vs. how they “should” be ( in my private fantasy world )

    BUT it’s still not fair that I’m not Michael Jordan. Seriously.

    • allenkoehn Says:

      Tom – Thanks for this. Coming from a father of young boys makes it an especially meaningful observation.


    • I’m confused. I thought “its not fair” was my 30-40 year old reaction to reality. I guess I have been hanging on a little too long. (That would explain a lot of things, actually!)

      I love the react vs. respond distinction. Complex vs. Buddha.

      I also want to know what kind of car the Angel of the Lord was driving?


  12. Love the question!
    Made me laugh out loud.
    I can hear Allen laughing too.
    Kathleen

  13. Kim Says:

    It’s not FAIR that you nailed another one–you rock, AK! Keep at it, KB


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