In all fairness
Jeff Van Hanken’s response to the oft-repeated refrain “That’s not fair.”
It’s such a lovely refrain: “That’s not fair!” Trips off the tongue: “That’s not fair!” Bounces off the walls: “That’s not fair!” Bores into the ears: “That’s not fair!” Bludgeons the brain: “That’s not fair!” Over and over and over again: “That’s not FAIR!”
If it’s tough to read, imagine how tough it is to hear.
Strange, too, how it bursts forth in the unlikeliest of situations: For example, my wife goes out to dinner with friends. Apparently, you guessed it, this is not fair. I was fortunate enough to attend the OU-Texas Tech game, and learned that this, too, is a grave slight. Not fair.
We almost have stopped hearing the many ways that each wrongs the other: could be a soccer practice for him (not fair) or piano for her (not fair). The deepest cuts usually center around an invitation delivered to one and not the other (though most people, to be … fair, are sensitive to this problem and extend the invitation to the both of them).
A birthday party for her, however, means quickly coming up with some alternative solution for him. We stopped using this one: “And you get to go running with Daddy!” This one, too: “Do you want to go to the store with Mommy?” I’ve tried and failed miserably at this: “Hey, buddy, do you want to watch the game?” But I still have hope.
What’s particularly unsatisfying, however, is the logical response to the “That’s not fair” complaint. “Life’s not fair.” And, of course, it’s not.
But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? The cold bucket of water contained in that statement, “Life’s not fair,” is not one I feel completely comfortable delivering. After all, one person’s wisdom may well come across as another person’s cynicism. You decide: “Life’s not fair.” Is this sage advice, the first moment of introduction into a long life of lived experience that eventually results in making measured decisions leavened by experience and insight, or is this merely a fast track to grumpy-old-man town?
And there is this, the logical, grown-up corollary to “Life’s not fair”: Wise up, sap! I remember a columnist once using this expression to describe the electorate. And perhaps at no point since the Great Depression (even longer?) has this admonition had more application. Watch the nightly news: There is hardly a person who wouldn’t have been helped by some forceful bystander leaning in at a critical moment and firmly whispering, “Wise up, sap!”
You, the one about to sign for that ridiculous loan on that ridiculous home: Wise up, sap. You who are about to approve that loan: Wise up, sap. You who are about to buy that bundle of loans: Wise up, sap. You who continue to produce untenably inefficient cars. You who bought those cars. You who ran up credit card debt. You who promoted debt. To almost any and all of us, at one moment or another, we would have been aided by an insistent “Wise up, sap.”
So why do I have such difficulty breaking the hard news to a 5- and 7-year-old that life is indeed not fair? It’s actually fairly simple, I think. Even though I know life is not played out quite evenly, even though I am desperate not to produce two naïve young adults with no firm understanding of life’s harder realities, I also do not want them to believe that life can never be improved.
To merely accept that life is not fair is to throw in the towel, admit defeat, to become a grumpy old man. And who likes a 5-year-old old man?
But to accept that life is not fair and, yet, can still be improved is to join the long line of industrialists, inventors, artists, academics, physicians and dreamers who got us to where we are today. Of course, all this well-meaning thoughtfulness is fine for a thumb-sucking column, but when “That’s not fair” starts bouncing off the walls of a small car caught in traffic on a hot day, it becomes difficult not to mop the sweat from one’s brow and resignedly mutter, “No, it’s not.”