Let us take, for a moment, a serious investigation of the question ‘is life fair’? What is your initial reaction to this? What word rolls to the tip of your tongue before you are able to stop it? Is ‘no’ waiting to leap over your teeth into the world? Anyone who’s ever been on a school playground, a battlefield, let go of a downsized company, or has lived life outside of a cave will feel comfortable with saying that “of course life isn’t fair”.
However, let’s slow down for a moment. Whether or not life is or is not fair is a deep and profound question that will fill many books spanning the categories of religion, ethics, and physics and I will not venture into that realm here. Each person struggles with this question and its sibling, ‘what is the meaning of life’ as part of their own life’s journey. I will leave that important and difficult question for you to decide.
Waiting, still, for an answer to the question of ‘is life fair’, before you let your answer roll off your tongue, I want you to shift your attention to inside your guts. What does your gut instinct tell you? What do you secretly wish and hope for in the deep corners of your heart and mind? That stone’s weight of certainty in the pit of your stomach, that tenacious tingling in the corner of your mind, is your stubborn gut of feelings. Pay attention to it right now. What is it telling you? What answer does it compel you to say to the question ‘is life fair’? It is prodding you to answer ‘yes, life is fair’, or similarly that ‘life has a purpose’ or that there is some ‘meaning to it all’.
Once again, I am not going to delve into what that meaning is or is not, nor what the source is. My concern here is at the psychological level only. If you are curious as to the metaphysics or ontological aspects I will direct you to your nearest philosopher or religious personage.
Let’s imagine a scenario for a moment. It is a beautiful day and you are driving down the street in your car. You aren’t speeding necessarily, just going with the flow of traffic, the same rate of speed that everyone is, about 5 mph over the posted speed limit. Suddenly you notice that behind you a police car has turned on its flashing lights and is directing you to pull over. You pull over into a nearby quiet street and await the police officer to walk to your car. Now, what is going through your mind right now? What sensations are present in your body? What is the first answer that comes to your mind when I ask you “why did the police officer pull you over”? Chances are your answer is something in the line of ‘he is trying to make his quota for the month’ or ‘he singled me out amidst all the other cars because he doesn’t like _____’ or ‘he is being a jerk’ or a host of other similar ideas.
Now, lets imagine another scenario for a moment. It is a beautiful day and you are driving down the street in your car. You aren’t speeding necessarily, just going with the flow of traffic, the same rate of speed that everyone is, about 5 mph over the posted speed limit. Up ahead you see that a police car has pulled over a car and the police officer is busy writing a ticket to the driver. Now, what is going through your mind this time? What is the first answer that comes to your mind when I ask you “why did the police officer pull that person over”? Here, chances are your answer is something in the line of ‘the driver was speeding’ or ‘people in those kinds of cars usually drive like maniacs’ or ‘glad to see the police keeping us safe’ or any number of other similar ideas.
This is a well known phenomenon in psychology called the Self-Serving Bias and it is quite pervasive and when you start looking for it you’ll notice it everywhere. Any situation that is a positive or negative for you or someone else can elicit this response, and we are typically unaware that it is occuring. Suppose you win a lottery ticket. Why did this happen? Could it be that the universe, God, fate, was giving you a good thing because you deserve it? Suppose you see a news story on the t.v. of someone else winning the lottery. Why did it happen to them? Were they lucky, or are they good people? The difference here is that when positive things happen to you, it is because you DESERVE it, but when positive things happen to others, they were LUCKY.
Suppose something negative happens, such a flat tire or termites infest your house or whatever. It is just dumb bad luck that you got it, or if it is from another person, they are intentionally doing it to harm/hurt you. If it happens to other people, however, they get a flat tire because they waited too long to get new tires, or they weren’t doing preventative maintenance on their house, or they deserve the reprimand from someone.
This doesn’t cover every situation, naturally, but if you start looking you’ll see this pattern emerge in your life. Basically put, when negatives happen to others it is because they deserve it, when it happens to you, it was the bad luck or someone else’s fault. When positives happen to others it is because of luck or somoeone else being magnanimous, when it happens to you it is because you deserve it.
How this works, simply speaking, is that when an event occurs you instantly make an assessment of it, a rule of thumb appraisal, a general gut feeling about what is happening. This is an emotional response in the brain that is very quick, down and dirty, and doesn’t require much in energy reserves to perform. Think about doing calculus problems all day… exhausting. We cut corners where we can to preserve energy and overly thinking about the causes and consequences of everything all the time is consumes a lot of energy. But because this is a quick assessment, a down and dirty assumption at first glance, this form of reasoning can be wildly innaccurate at times. And to complicate matters, it is an emotive feeling that we mistakenly confuse with the feeling of ‘knowing’ something. In other words, we sometimes think we are certain of something simply because we feel we know the answer, making it very hard to catch our own wild mistakes when we do make them.
Broadly speaking of two types of events, positive and negative, I am not going to investigate the effects of positives on your life, nor if you made an error in thinking that you deserved that parking spot next to the front door instead of being lucky. Instead I am going to look at what is more problematic for some, when negative events happen in our lives. With some things, such as a negative performance review or malfunctioning car, it can be beneficial to accurately determine what/if it is your fault. Responsible people will take a performance review and seek to address their shortcomings and improve, or perform preventative maintenance on their vehicle, and so forth. Denying your responsibility and blaming others is the mentality of the victim. Always taking the blame is the mentality of the martyr. Both aren’t conducive to a healthy, flourishing life. The wise person seeks to determine what he/she can and cannot control, what they have responsibility for or not, and they make a plan and move on.
Yet some things seem to be random indeed, with no rhyme or reason why they happened. You may get cancer. Some people may be quick to point out that your lifestyle contributed to it, or others that you are healthy but it was bad luck, or others that everything gives us cancer these days, or a lot of other reasons. Using the Self-Serving Bias as a framework, strangers may assume you got cancer because of things you’ve done, you and your family may assume you got cancer from external events and influences. The truth of which may be a complex interaction of all of the above, or none of it. But the fact still remains, you have cancer. Blaming yourself, or blaming the world, may feel good to do, may bring some emotional relief, but at the end of the day, the cancer is still there.
Imagine that you just got diagnosed with cancer, think back to the question, ‘is life fair’? What are you feeling? Is there anger? Denial? Did you play by the rules only to still get hit by this? Why you? Why now? Why this? It’s not fair!
Before we go further, lets pause for a moment; things are getting deep. I want to tell you a story about myself. People that have been through my trainings have heard me talk many times about running marathons. In fact, some have gotten quite bored of me doing so. Yet marathon running is a great stage for growth and development and I recommend anyone to do it, whether it takes a month or two years to train up to being able to run a marathon, the benefits are huge.
I ran my first marathon when I was 39. Before then I was never a runner. It bored me, I didn’t have the stamina to run far, and so on. But completing a marathon, for some reason, was on my list of things to do and I figured that 40 was the goal. So in the summer of my 39th year I trained for my first marathon. It was a learning curve. I got bored, or I couldn’t stop thinking about a million things, some days I couldn’t run over 2 miles, some days I had zero motivation, etc… But through a variety of motivational tricks, I kept my training up and gradually saw my long runs increase from 3 miles to 10 miles to 15 miles to 20 miles. I ran the marathon and, I’m not going to lie, it hurt. I could barely walk afterward and the pain lingered for a couple of days. I patted myself on the back and said ‘that’s done’ and never thought I’d do it again. That is until 6 months later when I ran my second marathon. This time I didn’t have much in the way of training, and it also hurt. When I signed up for my third, I was dedicated in my training, as well as my fourth and fifth. Three days from now I run my eighth marathon at the age of 43. People ask me why I run them. They still hurt, and with an average time of four hours, I am nowhere near winning one. My answer is that I run marathons as training for life.
So here is a personal, microview of what I mean. If I am not mindful of my days, I will find a million excuses not to run; I worked hard that day, I have a class to prepare for, I need to rest my legs from the last workout, and more good excuses. We are not rational beings so much as we are supremely rationalizing beings, meaning for any action in the world there are a dozen good reasons or excuses for it. And this is the crux of it all, that we can indeed rationalize literally anything at all. What, then, would we be motivated to rationalize? Many times it is our current mood or emotive state. Because I don’t feel, at an emotional level, like running, I can rationalize it. Let’s take this further with another example; suppose I am married and find myself at a convention with an attractive person who is making advances toward me. Physical arousal to such advances is a natural thing. Recognizing the responding state of arousal in my own body I could assume that it means that I am no longer in love with my partner. Or I could notice that I want to take the opportunity further, and I could rationalize it to myself by stating that my marriage is on the rocks anyway, or that this is a meaningless episode, or that many people cheat on their spouses, or that my partner wouldn’t mind as long as it was not brought up, or a host of other well crafted, and no so well crafted, rationalizations. Important note, I am still talking about the psychology of the event. If you are curious about the ethical landscape of such I would direct you toward a philosopher.
Except that here we must delve a little into the world of ethics. Without a system of ethics, how would we decide what to do in this situation? Do we give in to our desires? Do we exercise inhibition? Do we seek to increase counter desires? For this, lets return to training for marathons. After running hundreds of miles in three years I had started to learn a few tricks to help me get through the sometimes monotonous and difficult training runs. Near Ashland, Oregon there is a trail that runs from Lithia Park up a mountain. Every year I visit Ashland for the Shakespeare festival and I never miss an opportunity to a couple of miles up that mountain. It is hard running, for me at least. It is steep, draining, tests my endurance, and many times I have to take a break to catch my breath. On one run I had made it up about two miles and my breath was short, sweat poured out of me, my heart rate was like a mad bongo player, my legs ached and complained at the work, and going was slow, very slow. I wanted to call it quits. I quickly calculated that if I turned around there and ran back to the park I would run a decent five miles. This was a decent distance for a short run, plus half of it was harder than normal as I was going up the side of a mountain. I was ahead of my goals for marathon training, I was in a beloved vacation spot and could take in a good restaurant or play, and so on. I came within a hair’s breath of turning around. But then I reflected on the WHY. Why was it that I was running up a mountain in the first place? The reason was that it was concentrated awesomeness and the amount of return on investment was much greater than a typical run. I had another marathon coming up in two months and I knew that every step I took up that mountain, was a little more speed on my marathon, a little further before I hit the wall, a little less anguish before the 26.2 mile finish line. With these thoughts in mind, I WANTED to take one more step up the mountain. I wanted to go just one more mile, to make another assessment on turning around or not. I wanted to hurt less on that marathon. Because as much as I was hurting then, I knew from experience that the marathon had the potential to hurt worse. A little pain now mean less pain in the future. I rationalized my pain. Though I was still tired, I did notice an increase in strength while running up that mountain. I also made it up further than I ever had! And when the marathon came around, I made a new PR!
What is your source of ethics? What determines your sense of purpose in the Universe? In a purely Just World, only the deserving would receive negative life events. Different religious traditions attempt different answers to this question, known in philosophy as the Question of Evil. Again, for these matters I will point you to the nearest philosopher or religious person. I will, however, give comment in alignment with the Stoics of Ancient Greece. The Stoics, that often misunderstood group of philosophers, held that there was an underlying order to the world and that the wise person seeks to live in harmony with that order. Okay, nothing odd there. We too believe this, Science is built on this. But, it so happens that there are many, many moving pieces, mistakes of judgment, what seems like random chance (randomness in an orderly universe is a book all unto itself), conflicts of intent and desire, and so on. It is unavoidable that negative things, outside of your control, will occur to you. Go ahead, try to imagine a life without any negative events at all. It is impossible, the Stoics would say ‘quit whining about it’. The Stoic would try to determine what, if anything, could be done in a situation, and if so… do it. This sounds good, who doesn’t agree with this? But who can live up this ideal? Who is born a Stoic sage? Who hasn’t been frustrated in traffic when the slow drivers in front of you are busy eating tacos and texting on their cellphones?
Pause for a moment. How easy is it to justify the frustration and anger felt at the annoying drivers in front of you? Many people might not have identified with the rationalizing of infidelity, but will whole heartedly, happily entertain thoughts about the ineptness of the idiot drivers in front of us. What to do? This is the mountain trail and you are tired. You can turn around, call the drivers and idiot, and tell yourself that the run was a good training run anyway, that there are indeed idiots driving cars. Or, and this is a powerful ‘or’, you can view this instance as training for the future. Just as continuing to run up the mountain prepares me for the real challenge of the marathon, today’s frustration in traffic prepares me for the real challenge to come. What is that challenge? Who knows. It could be I get diagnosed with cancer, or my beloved Mustang is totaled, or I lose my job, or my partner takes out frustration on me, or an overdue project is sidelined, or my effectiveness at a job is hindered by political manueverings of department heads, or any number of other things where I need to be my best self, a self that is wiser, less prone to overreaction, than I am today.
I cannot speak to any ontological reasonings as to any purpose of our existence, but this does not deny that I have the ability to add a purpose to my life. I may not have been the best of people, the most sage, most patient, most kind, most industrious, most creative, or whatever. But I know the sort of person that I want to be. Every day, every moment, every breath, is a moment that offers me the choice of turning around, or continuing to run up the mountain. Working toward this, living a life of purpose, is more important than the unimportant question ‘is life fair’.