Even in my earliest memories of childhood, I’m aware of a belief in fairness.
I used to get outraged at unfairness. If I saw someone getting bullied, or if my brother got the bigger piece of cake, or if the bad guy won at the end of the movie. These things would get me seriously worked up.
It only got worse as I got older, especially once I developed Nice Guy Syndrome. No matter how good or kind or selfless or compassionate I was, other people got more rewards, recognition and success. At least, it seemed that way.
I couldn’t understand it.
All my life I’d been told, both directly and indirectly, that the Universe is somehow balanced and fair. That for every bad there was good. For every good there was eventually reward, and for every bad there was eventually punishment.
But as the years wore on, I didn’t see karma playing out the way it was supposed to.
The kindly yet geeky outcasts in my school didn’t go on to become the Bill Gates’ of the world. They just continued to get bullied and had mostly miserable lives. And the bullies seemed to go from one success to another.
I saw awful people win elections and stay elected. I saw murderers walk free while minor drug offenders got life sentences. I saw beautiful animals go extinct, while the human population doubled. I saw greedy companies win lawsuits and crush the small guys.
Over and over and over this unfairness played out.
And that’s just in the world around me. In my own life, once I hit adulthood, things kept going from bad to worse. The nicer I was, the less I received. While my career did OK, my social life decayed and atrophied along with my physical health, general happiness and self-confidence.
At first, I assumed that perhaps I was a freak anomaly. I even prided myself on a kind of martyrdom – a belief that perhaps I had been especially chosen to suffer unfairly, so that others might enjoy a wonderful life. It was a story that barely worked to keep my crushing resentment and hopelessness at bay.
But then, one day, I stopped and checked in with this whole concept of fairness.
I came to realise that I had believed in fairness my entire life, yet not once had I clearly defined what fairness even meant to me.
Sure, I had a vague idea about balance of good and bad, yet when I poked and prodded this I came to realise that fairness certainly shouldn’t mean 50% bad. I wouldn’t consider a life that was half-awful and only half-good to be fair.
This was a bit of a shock for me. I had always assumed fairness meant some kind of karmic balance; a yin-yang of good and evil. Yet when I looked closely at things I complained about as being unfair, “balance” was surprisingly absent. I might consider even a slight upset to be unfair, even coming off the back of a lot of wins.
I didn’t consider half the world hating me and half loving me as fair – I wanted everyone to at least like me.
Having half the attempts I made fail would have felt monstrously unfair to me – I wanted perfection, or at least a better-than-average success rate.
Earning an average wage with average friends and average health seemed like an insult on my good nature – I felt like I was entitled to much richer rewards. But more rewards would be decidedly better than fair. So what did I really believe in?
I was shocked. Whether I looked internally at my own life or externally at the way of the world, it was clear that I did not believe in actual fairness. A balance of good and evil was not what I considered fair.
I came to the realization that “fair” was just a word I used to hide the fact that I got upset when things didn’t go exactly my way.
Sure, I had some tolerance for failure, rejection and competition, but only if I’d win in the end. An evil that endured and beat me every time was considered unfair, even if my life was balanced overall.
When you look at fairness as balance, you’ll see that the universe is not fair, it’s actually skewed in your favour!
The fact that you’re alive is unfair on all that died (think of the plants and animals that gave their lives so you could have one more meal). And when you look at each activity you partake in on an average day, you’ll see you win nearly every battle.
Sure, the losses stand out in your mind and are easier to remember (this is due to a cognitive bias known as the heuristic availability), but that doesn’t mean you’re losing more than you’re winning.
If you slept in a bed without asphyxiating, showered without slipping over and breaking your hip, drove to work without having an accident, and have enough money to feed yourself and family today, you are winning by a large margin.
And this isn’t even in comparison to the starving babies in Africa or whatever, it’s just a measurement of success vs failure inside your own life. Simply put, most of what you do succeeds, even if you don’t put a huge emphasis on certain successes.
But it still doesn’t feel fair, does it? Now, why is that?
How come we’re almost constantly winning and yet life still feels unfair?
Because fairness is an illusion, a fairytale told to us by our minds, one that has no basis in reality. Your brain pretends it’s searching for equality and equity but in reality it just wants more, better and easier.
There is no such thing as “fair” according to the Universe, because everything is always in balance, which means there is no unfairness… which means there is no need for a concept of fairness at all.
Life is balanced by death, rich is balanced by poor, sickness is balanced by health, but balance itself cannot be balanced out by something else. Newton’s Laws of Physics show us clearly that everything is perfectly balanced overall. Nothing in, nothing out; action, reaction.
Everything is fair, so nothing is fair.
But that doesn’t matter to your ego though, does it? Your ego doesn’t actually mean “balanced” when it complains about unfairness. Your idea of a fair life has nothing to do with balance, which already exists anyway.
Your idea of fair is you getting what you want.
Admit it. “Fair” is all the resources you need, all the love you desire, and the world functioning according to your morals, principles and ethics. That’s what you think is fair.
Of course, your ego fails to mention that if you were to somehow achieve this fairness, others would suffer horribly.
For you to get resources, someone else must lose theirs. For you to get the love you desire, someone must take their attention away from someone else to give to you. And the world functioning by your ethics could easily become a dystopian nightmare – you probably have no idea how a massive population living like you would actually function.
I shudder to think what a world of people who all thought the same as me would look like.
The Universe can never be fair.
Not only is fairness a completely selfish and subjective term that’s so unique to each individual as to be totally impossible to actually implement, certain principles prevent equality or balance of outcomes anyway (e.g. the 80/20 Pareto Principle). Even if we could all agree on what “fair” means, the way of the world and Laws of Physics prevent it coming true.
Instead, I urge you to consider a slightly different concept: Respect.
Respect is a value that incorporates and accepts unfairness, that is to say: respect is about allowing the Universe to behave differently than your idealistic fantasies.
Respect means looking at your life – your personality, abilities, options and circumstances – and saying, “These are the cards I’ve been dealt; this is what I must play with.”
Respect means looking at this crazy human race and saying “Yup, they’re crazy; those are the people I have to work with, around or through.”
Respect means looking at that dream world in your head and saying, “There’s no evidence that supports this dream coming true, but there is a reality out there I can try to make the most of.”
Respect means saying, “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how I play the game.”
Letting go of the dream of fairness was hard for me, but it was also inevitable. It’s impossible to hold onto something untrue for long, especially when it’s impossible to find a single piece of evidence to support it.
There’s nothing about the Universe that supports any individual’s idea of fairness, because even if you do think life is fair, that simply means you’re getting what you want… which isn’t fair on the rest of us who aren’t! You can’t have fairness without creating unfairness – because the Universe is balanced overall already anyway.
The Universe is not fair, but it can be respected. You can work with the cards you’ve been dealt as best as possible. First, you must let go of your fantasies and ideals. Then, and only then, you can make a life worth respecting, even if it means fighting against unfairness every day of your life.