Life isn’t fair, and that’s good
Reading time: 5 minutes
One of my favorite quotes is by Rainer Maria Rilke “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things”. Life is not supposed to be easy. Buddhism’s first noble truth offers us this gem in a different way: ‘Life is suffering’. On the surface, this isn’t good news. But actually, it can be.
WHAT GOES AROUND
The other day I watched a movie where Nazis were being killed. My immediate response was immense satisfaction, pleasure even. Not just at their death. Pleasure in the pain that they were experiencing. With a little guilt, I tried to understand why. ‘They DESERVED it.’ I told myself. That’s why it felt so good. As human beings, we love the idea of karma. ‘What goes around, comes around.’ Our favorite stories suggest that while life is not fair, people ultimately get what they deserve.
But in the real world, they don’t.
THE UNFAIRNESS OF LIFE
Some of the worst people in human history have not had to suffer even a tiny amount of the pain their victims have faced. They have gotten away with it. War. Poverty. Disease. Famine. Terrorism, Accidents. Terminal Illnesses. Life cut short too soon. Dictators, regimes, and greedy governments declaring war and sending the ordinary folk out to fight. The rich still ruling the world. More than 700 million people in the world today living on less than one dollar and ninety cents per day. Life is a collection of devastating realities too hard to contemplate. Anyone who says life is fair is living in a world the rest of us do not know. Life is not fair. It never was fair. It never will be fair. But that’s a good thing.
Hear me out. I am NOT saying that it’s a good thing that so many people suffer. It is horrific. I very much wish all these awful things in life did not occur. But they do. My wishes won’t change things. Because they do, let’s have a look at what this means.
IN A WORLD OF FAIRNESS
If life were fair, we would live in a world where everyone would get what they deserved. There would be one law: Do good and you would get what you want. It sounds wonderful.
But in a world of fairness, kindness is unnecessary.
Real kindness is doing the right thing for someone regardless of what you will get. Sometimes, it is doing the right thing in spite of it. Throughout history, the examples and stories of those who sacrificed their lives for those they barely knew. That is the kind of beauty that makes this world an incredible place to live. Unfairness makes us kinder.
In a world of fairness, strength is unnecessary.
Real strength is being resilient in the face of adversity. In this unfair world, we are forced to tackle the problems we face head-on. We experience the uncertainty of a chaotic world where anything can happen. And we must be strong enough to deal with it. We are stronger because the world is unfair. Unfairness makes us stronger.
In a world of fairness, growth is unnecessary.
Real growth is pushing back against forces of antagonism in such a way that we must get better as a result. In this unfair world, we need our challenges to challenge us to grow. We become better because of them not in spite of them. The monsters that push back cause us to dig deeper and find what we need to be better. Unfairness forces us to grow.
HANDLING AN UNFAIR WORLD
So, how do you deal with an unfair world?
First, accept that life is unfair. As long as you spend time feeling bad about how unfair things are, you will trap yourself in a victim mindset where you constantly wait for karma to right everything. That’s not how things work.
Second, given that life is unfair, there are areas where you have gotten much more luck and areas where you have gotten much less luck than others. The key is to feel grateful for the areas where you are luckier than most and come to terms with the areas where you are unluckier than most.
Third, be kind. Do good for others because you can, not because of what it will give you. Find your own special way of making a positive difference to the world.
Next, in the areas where you are unluckier than most, ask yourself how you can succeed because of this? What are the things you need to do to triumph? How does your bad fortune make you stronger?
Fifth, what lessons have you learned as a result of what you’ve faced? What has it forced you to do? What defeats have made you better?
Sixth, instead of getting what you deserve, focus on doing all you can. What changes can you make? To your own life? To the community? To the system?
Remind yourself that you will never get to a place where all your problems are solved. Instead, the key is to enjoy the problems you have solved. Embrace the misfortune you have had. Accept the reality of where you are at, pick your sword back up, and keep fighting the next monster. Keep moving in the direction of where you want to go.
When I say ‘fighting the next monster,’ I’m not even really talking about fighting. Your fight might be to live in peace in a world that tries to bring you to war. It might be to meditate in a world where everyone wants your attention. Your fight might be changing your perspective when it is so easy to feel victimized. It’s basically doing what you can to keep moving forward.
This is relatively easy for me to say. I have been extremely fortunate to be born into a loving family in a relatively peaceful time with plenty of resources. Life has been good to me. But I have struggled with my mind. I have had my own share of dark times. Despite my external gifts, my internal struggles don’t make it easy for me. Those same internal struggles are my monsters. They are the reason I am who I am today.
If you’re struggling a lot right now, I’m sorry. I know it might seem like the only thing to do is wallow in this horrendous reality. But when you accept that you don’t always get what you deserve in life, maybe, just maybe, you can find a way through.
Life is unfair, so you must be kind. You must be strong. You must grow.
When Rilke says, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things”, I believe that it means we are constantly tackling the adversity the world hurls at us. Our main focus needs to be on constantly growing, improving, and evolving.
It is about solving problem after problem so that we constantly face the next one. Life may well be suffering, but it can also be struggling. The beauty of struggling is that we always do so in a particular direction.
Hope you found this useful.
P.S. ‘How to change minds with psychology’ is my latest Changing Minds podcast episode – you can listen and watch it here.