A scream: It’s not fair!
A surrender, a sigh: It’s not fair.
A realization: It’s not fair…
A cry: It. is. not. fair!
A complaint: It’s not faaaaiiiir.
An apology: It’s not fair.
A prayer; a whisper or a wail: It isn’t fair, Lord.
A question: Life – It’s not fair?
This last one, the question, breaks my heart. It is too much to ask of me. How can I know the answer? My human heart cracks under the weight of betrayal. Of weakness. Of illness and pain and suffering and mockery. But this question deserves an answer. And my son, who looks up at me with liquid eyes, deserves an answer. “Mommy, why are some people born rich and others are born poor?” It’s not what I had expected from the child who’d been fighting – with himself – over a ship built out of 4 Legos for the past hour. My other son answered him flippantly, most likely echoing something he’d heard me say, “Because life’s not fair.” Easy to say for someone who isn’t doing the suffering.
“It’s not fair?” my 7-year-old repeated to me. His question was so honest – he was surprised, in that genuine way only kids can be, that life may not actually be fair.
And of course it isn’t. It never was. But I hate being the one tasked with educating these new little beings about the atrocities of life. Just this morning I found myself explaining civil war and chemical weapons to an 11-, 9-, 7- and 3- year-old. That’s what I get for listening to NPR while I make breakfast. I’d rather have the sex talk any day, frankly. Someone has to tell them though. Eventually they’ll see a rerun of Kim Kardashian’s eleventy million dollar wedding and subsequent divorce 76 days later and realize that Star isn’t an astronomy magazine.
For me, my initiation into that knowledge came in elementary school when I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I remember laying on my bed, wracked with sobs. She was my age! She did nothing wrong! And they just killed her! I could not believe I lived in a world that would do that to a little girl. I was sick. I was livid. But most of all, I wanted off and I wanted my money back.
Twenty years later I’m still waiting on that refund but in the meantime it’s been a heck of a ride. So when my son asked me, I knew he deserved a real answer. I knew what he was looking for was the answer implied in every iteration of “it’s not fair”: Why? Why am I sick when others are whole? Why does math come easy to him but not to me? Why do I have to exercise like a fiend and watch every bite I eat just to maintain “overweight” while she eats whatever she wants? Why do I want to throw up every time I see someone take their gloves off with their teeth because I have a weird aversion to teeth coming into contact with fabric? (Just me?) It’s all horribly unfair.
Here’s what I told him. (And, per my usual, I think I was talking to myself as much as him. I’ve been a lifelong foot-stomper on this issue.)
My darling unblemished son, life is unfair because:
1. It’s how we grow. Sure we can learn and grow from the good stuff in our lives but if we’re honest, it’s been the really really hard stuff that’s shaped us. Mistakes are just lessons waiting to be learned and devastation makes way for tender, new growth. And because I believe God is merciful, I think the pain is just enough for us to grow, and no more. (I’ve never liked that saying “God never gives us something we can’t handle.” Frankly I think he gives us stuff we can’t handle all the time – but then he provides a way for us to grow strong enough to deal with it.) I never would have started writing if I hadn’t been overwhelmed with my need to document my abusive relationship with my ex, taking back with my words what he’d stolen from me with his.
2. You can’t have empathy if you’ve never hurt. And if you don’t have empathy, you can’t have charity which in its purest form is the representation of all that is good in humankind. After battling IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and feeling like I swallowed glass for years, I have nothing but respect and sympathy for people who deal with chronic pain on a daily basis. And because I’ve had a small taste of the utter hopelessness of unremitting pain, I do everything I can to help others in my life who are suffering with that burden. Even if that’s just sitting with them while they cry.
3. Sometimes bad things just happen. I hate this answer but sometimes the best you can say is that you got through it and you hope it never happens again. I still don’t know what the point was in carrying a baby for so long only to have her die almost before she lived. What is the meaning of a life that only one person felt? Yet no one did anything wrong. There was no sin, no error, no crime, no one to blame. Just a simple wrong twist on a tiny strand of DNA. While I don’t think my daughter’s short life was meaningless – quite the opposite – I do think there is no shame in saying that I don’t know why some babies live but mine died.
4. It all evens out. And by this I don’t mean some cosmic (or karmic?) scale will magically balance by the end of our lives. But what I do know is that when it seems that we never get what we deserve, we need to remember that we seldom deserve what we get. Gratitude is everything. Comparisons are odious.
5. I don’t know. Right now I have two friends struggling with two very different but equally devastating life crises. Their stories are not mine to tell but I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to listen. And they have reminded me that sometimes listening is more important than any answer. I do believe that someday we will all know the whys of our lives but in the meantime sometimes no answer is the answer. There’s a certain freedom in giving up the need to know everything now and a certain joy in listening to what fills the silence.
And so I listened to my son when several hours later he snuck up out of bed, pressed a wad of bills and change into my hand – his life savings courtesy of the Tooth Fairy – and said, “I want you to use my money to buy the poor kids food. Oh, and a flashlight, because they’ll need one if they ever have to fight a coyote.” You will remember that coyotes are his greatest fear since moving to Colorado? I think it’s beautiful that he realized every kid has a coyote and I think it’s brave that what he chose to fight that battle is a flashlight and not a gun. I hope someday I can be as beautiful and brave. We could all use more illumination.
It’s not fair. That I am the one who is supposed to teach them when they are the ones with all the wisdom.
I’m stocking up on flashlights, for the next time I have to fight my coyotes.
Your turn. Help me help my son and finish this sentence: “Life is unfair because…” When did you realize that life is tragically unfair? Anyone else have that phobia of chewing on cloth?? Just watching my babies chew on their blankets made my teeth want to crawl back up into my gums. Gah.