“It’s not fair!” – how often have we heard that from our children or grandchildren when they are playing a game or being punished or, indeed, at any number of other points in the day?
And they are right – life is very unfair. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I feel that luck plays a huge part in our lives. Possibly the largest part of all.
Luck in our health, luck in our genes – and even luck in our personality and character.
The view of children
Children are very quick to point out all the unfairness in life.
Their friend got a better computer for Christmas. Another friend’s mother lets him stay up late. Another friend never has to practise her violin. It goes on and on.
Sometimes, it is just where we are in life.
My daughter, age seven, and I were on our way to the Christmas concert that her piano teacher held every year for her pupils to play for their collective parents. “It’s not fair,” she argued in her nervousness, “the other children have been learning for much longer and of course they can play better.”
I did my best to reassure her that she would do fine. Which she did.
Years passed, and we were again on our way to exactly the same occasion, but she was now age 14. “It’s not fair…,” she exclaimed, with no memory of the previous occasion, “the young kids get to play easy songs with two fingers, and I have to play The Moonlight Sonata.”
Again, I tried to reassure her that she would do fine, which she did. But I must admit that I could not resist pointing out the earlier discussion and may have left her feeling she could not win.
And, from her point of view, she was right. Life did not feel fair.
We do our best to discuss with our children how no, life isn’t fair, and we all need to learn to live with it. Or, on occasion, we try to explain why life is fair, to help them see the positive side.
Or we find some other words to move the conversation on. It’s not a discussion at which anyone really wins.
The view of adults
Adults are no different on this issue.
A young man will complain that one particular friend always gets the pretty girls, when he has no special qualities to attract them.
An older woman will feel slighted when a male colleague is promoted above her, although she is clearly more talented at the job.
There are, of course, numerous other circumstances on which I could draw. Sometimes, we are quick to find an explanation that assures us of our case.
The girls don’t really like that friend, but they like the fact he has a car. It is because the employer is prejudiced against women that he has promoted the man – or perhaps it is discrimination against older people.
We have many such explanations up our sleeves, sometimes correct ones.
Growing older brings out so many inequities one by one, until you lose track of any sense of fairness. It is, I feel, a driving force of much of our lives.
Most visibly, there is good health. Some people seem to be born with a strong constitution and the ability to fight off whatever diseases afflict them.
Others fall at the first hurdle, dying young from unexpected cancer or other disease affecting young people. Or, indeed, they die horribly in a car accident, as did my younger sister not yet out of her 20s.
As we age, our bodies test us constantly and sometimes, the heart or a kidney or a lung or even an innocent-looking nerve gone rogue gets the upper hand. We are left unable to lead a full life or, perhaps, disabled by pain. This is clearly not fair.
But health is only the beginning. Where most people seek the warmth and happiness of marriage (or close partnership, the legalities are not important), this seems to elude some of us to the end.
And then there are the broken marriages. How much pain is represented in the statistics of divorce – the marriage ended due to a constantly roving eye or alcoholism or downright boredom.
It is total luck, in my view, that the hopes of some young brides come roughly true while others fall by the wayside because these contingencies could not remotely have been foreseen.
And then there are the children, and subsequent grandchildren, who get themselves born – or not. I did not know it beforehand – I thought naively that the interests and personalities of your children were roughly predictable.
How wrong could I have been? Some seem to come out of the womb ready to please, to fit in, to make a good life for themselves. Others make life difficult for everyone around them and, most of all, for themselves. It is certainly not fair, one way or the other.
Life’s rich tapestry is not rich in the same way for one and all. Most of us struggle along as best we can and feel pleased when something works out.
Our own efforts
Some like to think that any success was due to their own talent and hard work. And they may be right. “The harder I work, the more luck I have,” you hear people say.
But having those very skills – the talent, resourcefulness and perseverance that helped them work hard – must be seen as luck in the first place. They might have been born differently.
The same is true for health. Some will declare that their own good health is down to the fact that they always ate healthy food, never smoked and took lots of exercise.
You can readily agree. But perhaps you should also question what qualities such people had deep within them that provided the disposition to pursue that course. It still comes back to luck, in my view.
What can we do?
We can have good luck or bad or, for that matter, in-between. Basically, life is just unfair.
There is little more that can be said. I can only offer the phrase that French parents seem to offer their children, when asked a difficult question – “C’est comme ça”, they say (that’s the way it is).
I always thought that is not much of an explanation of anything, but it will have to do.
A version of this article can be found in my new book, The Granny Who Stands on her Head: Reflections on Growing Older. It was also published by SixtyandMe.com