Whoever Promised That Life Would be Fair

by Sylvia Krakauer

Almost everyone I know remembers the first time the previously dispositive complaint “That’s not fair” was not met with a sincere effort to make things right but with a dismissive “Whoever promised that life would be fair?”

Most of us were shocked into silence without fully grasping that our worlds were forever changed (and not for the better) by that question.

There are a lot of reasons for this not the least of which the fact that the person now hiding behind, “life isn’t fair, deal with it!” was in many cases the very person who had gotten us to brush our teeth, refrain from asking for water or kisses and go to sleep instead, do our homework and wait patiently on line with the promise that we’d be rewarded and that everyone was subject to these same rules. We had in the past been told over and over again that we’d be waited on in the order we showed up and that touching all the bases was not just for baseball.

Then when we were properly trained, suitably indoctrinated and well brought up, we were unceremoniously disabused of the notion that had virtually run our formative years. We were put on notice that life would no longer be presumed to be fair.

It took some of us a while to really get this through our thick skulls. After all, before fairness was taken off the table, we understood the concept of exceptions. The smart, well-behaved kids get to be the teacher’s pet. Except occasionally a school board member’s son or particularly cute little girl can break the mold and be chosen ahead of the intelligent docile candidates. Was this, we wondered later, a hint that the rules could indeed be bent and sometimes sidestepped entirely?

Our parents always claimed not to have favorites, but punishments and rewards were never meted out identically to siblings. We who heretofore attributed omniscience and steadfast honesty to our parents assumed that there was some motivation that was being encouraged or thwarted, something we hadn’t seen but they had and that our siblings were in fact all being measured with the same stick used on us. Maybe this was not true and maybe we would have to go forward knowing that two people who engage in exactly the same behavior will not be treated the same simply because one is more likeable than the other.

The repercussions of this were too monumental to take in all at once. What about all of the social agreements that did not have to be negotiated on a daily basis? Would we be reinventing the wheel of third grade group dynamics every day? Was pushing and hitting in fact okay, as long as nobody saw it and the person being pummeled couldn’t prove who it was who inflicted the bruises? Would we have to stop screaming in unison “no cutting” and admit that the sacredness of a line can sometimes be breached?

And if equity (not to mention the equality we were now reluctantly giving up) was not to be the benchmark, than what was? Size? Intelligence? Might?

Most troublesome of all, if people were treated differently according to how much they were liked, and if behavior did not determine whether or not someone deserved to be liked, what rules were there for being and where could we get copies of those rules?

Around the time my teachers and my mother started cautioning me to stop expecting life to be fair, I received yet another blow to the universe that had just started to make sense and in which I thought I might find a comfortable place using my overly well developed tools of niceness and fairness.

This blow was two pronged and even all these years later I’m not sure which part dealt me the more crushing punch.

Apparently bullies and mean people whose actions don’t universally rise to the level of bullying but are selectively cruel can act with impunity as long as the person they are harassing shows them that they are upset. If you can ignore a bloody nose or scandalous lie about your heritage, it is understood that the behavior must cease. If, instead, you get upset or worse still, cry, then you pretty much deserve what you get forevermore.

Unlike the issue of the fairness of life, the question of a victim deserving further humiliation once that person has acted the part of the victim and tattled or otherwise expressed weakness is universally unchallenged.

The follow up blow was the fact that no reaction to a slight or overtly hostile act could be considered if it would reasonably be expected to give the perpetrator satisfaction. Once again, crying, complaining or showing in any way that the physical blows or verbal abuse had struck a nerve was forbidden and to do so brings us back to making the victim deserve, even be considered to be asking for, further mean-spirited taunting and brutality.

If we had, as young and still malleable children, been given all of this information at once, we would probably have chucked the entire social contract and tried to come up with something more workable, even fair. But as anyone who’s ever gotten anything really big away from its former owner knows, you always give a lot and then slowly take it back and you always take a little and then slowly end up forcing the owner to relinquish the rest.

So remnants of fairness survived even while “he only hits you because he knows it bothers you” became, not only not further proof of his bad behavior, but rather the justification for it.

If the bully’s parents were the ones saying “just don’t show him that you care that he steals your lunch every day”, we might have hobbled into adulthood clinging to the hope that not everyone approved of and even lauded the lunch thief. In fact it was our parents, these good, kind and fair people who could banish monsters and would protect us with their very lives, who looked into their vast stores of experience and knowledge and the best they could come up with is “let it go, don’t let them see that it bothers you and they’ll stop”. This is what nearly brought childhood to a grinding halt.

But the concept of fairness, while having lost a bit of its omnipotent sheen, was not going down without a fight and without its random triumphs.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher decided to give a surprise quiz to prove that we weren’t doing justice to the reading assignments that were mandatory but previously not subject to testing. That seemed perfectly fair, very fair even as it seemed fair to me, to whom homework and studying came easily, that there should be some reward given for doing as we were told to do. There should also be some advantage to being smarter than everyone else, although this was trickier. As most smart kids quickly find out, people all think that they are smart. This is not a problem as regards our peers for there are many ways of comparing and contrasting people with equal access to information. But since most teachers think they are smart, the previously unquestioned adage that school is a place that rewards smart kids usually only works until the smart kids start being obviously more gifted than their teachers. Depending on the class and the instructor, this happens at different times. Depending on the teacher’s tolerance for dealing with younger people who are smarter, or way smarter than him or her, this can really speed up the end of the notion that life is supposed to be fair, making school life really unpleasant for kids recognized even by slower ones as smarter than their teachers. This phenomenon usually begins to manifest around third grade. Until then, even prodigies are limited by social immaturity and extremely limited vocabularies and access to information as vital as that which is strictly academic, such as finding one’s way to the restroom and not needing assistance performing necessary tasks once finding it. In any case, I was generally accepted to be the smartest person in my fourth grade class and my teacher was only marginally less intelligent than I was, meaning that she would have been the second smartest kid in the class had she not been the teacher. To her credit, this did not seem to make her hate my guts or resent my cohorts who would ask me questions when they didn’t understand her lessons.

The surprise quiz was five pages long and required everything from cursory association with the material to ability to appreciate nuance in complex subject matter. I had no problem with that. The problem I had was with the grading. The test was, as I said, five pages long. Each page contained a different number of questions of varying levels of difficulty. I had no problem with that. My problem was with the way it was graded. For some reason I will never comprehend but have always attributed to my fourth grade teacher’s dislike of math, there was no partial credit given for any of the categories of questions. Each page was worth either 20, for a perfect score, or 0 points for any mistake on that page.

I had gotten one question wrong and received a grade of 80%. I already understood bell curves and so I knew that since nobody had received a perfect score, my one question away from perfect would translate to an A. That wasn’t my issue. It just seemed so ridiculously unfair that someone who got one question wrong on a page would get the same grade as someone who did not get one question right on any one of the pages.

And this wasn’t just about me. I bristled at the fact that someone who got two questions wrong on two different pages would get a lower score than someone who got less than two questions right on one page but all the other pages’ questions right. Okay, since I’m talking about fairness, I feel compelled to disclose that I’d guessed on one question on a page with no errors and gotten it right so maybe I wasn’t being completely altruistic by worrying about the fairness of people who got less than an 80%, which by the way (and I don’t mean to brag but just want you to understand how fighting the Bell Curve really wasn’t in my own best interests) was everyone in the class who wasn’t me.

If I’d thought my teacher wasn’t as smart as me before the test, her response to my complaints about her grading of it proved me right. She said that she completely understood my point about the grading not necessarily reflecting the true performance of the test takers. But, she was sure everyone would agree that nobody would be willing to figure out the proper way to accord partial credit and re-grade all the papers. When I offered to do it, she did not reprimand me for insubordination, which has been the lot of many of my smart friends when they questioned authority and even more of them when they took someone up on a spurious offer to “do it yourself if you think you can do a better job.” She was really good natured about it and gave me all the papers.

I’d won. I had the opportunity to make things fair. And I did not take this lightly. I carefully counted up all of the questions and divided by 100 to assign each question the right number of points. I carefully calculated the results and put the number grade on each paper.

Then, recognizing that even though the decision had been made for expediency and in recognition of her weakness in math, my teacher had expressed a preference for giving equal credit to each of the five sections, I again added up the questions, this time according different values to each question by grading the test as five different exams, each with a maximum score of 20 and then adding them up. I placed this second grade on the papers. There were only a couple of people whose scores were not identical and I considered this a tribute to my teacher’s attempt to create roughly the same number of questions for each page. For the couple of students whose two grades fell on different sides of a letter grade, I averaged the two and then circled the third grade.

The only thing that continued to bother me was the fact that all fractions are figured to three places and then rounded up or down only when computing the final grade. This was fine for everyone but my own paper. I’d gotten one question wrong and that had given me a 99 point something over five. By rights I should have rounded up to 100, giving me the same benefit of the rounding accorded everyone else. But by fourth grade I knew that 100 means perfect and you cannot get 100 unless you get everything perfect so I’d have to live with the fact that my getting a question wrong subtracted more points from my score than getting any other question right added to my classmates. I knew enough about pushing my luck not to mention this when I turned the papers over to my teacher to hand out to the class. She complimented me for the work I’d put into calculating the scores, expressed gratitude for my sensitivity to her initial preference that each section be given equal weight and allowed the revised grades to stand.

I will ever forgive her for this. It was satisfying in the moment but it set my ability to accept that life is not fair back years. And it made me think that unfairness can be countered with reason and hard work. This has caused me much suffering and frustration in the years that followed.

But like everyone who doesn’t end up in a padded cell muttering about them being out to get me, I have made an uneasy peace with life in an unfair world.

I take great comfort in the fact that there is a legal system which is color blind and ensures the same rights to all even though I know that I do not have the financial resources to avail myself of the protections of that system and so try to avoid running afoul of those whose rights could more adequately be asserted due to their deeper pockets.

A feeling of safety and security results from knowing that there are policemen to protect me from those who would do harm to me and take what is legally mine even though I know that laws are subjectively applied and that I should not be content to follow the laws but should attempt at all times to placate the protectors of order and law.

I know that it would be as unthinkable for me to “cut” a line as it would be fruitless to complain when an attractive 20 year old is allowed to do so. I might still expect fairness but I only ask for blatant unfairness to be kept to a minimum and only demand that which I can back up with my resources or willingness to put myself in a worse position than acceptance of the disparate conditions has left me in.

And to avoid becoming bitter and disillusioned over this, I have replaced my concept of fairness with a much more convoluted and patient one, the concept of karma. What goes around comes around, people proclaim and everyone leaves it at that, each with a unique perspective on whether it the going and coming are separated by an hour, a day or several lifetimes. Being in a better place is the karmic consolation prize for having been horribly mistreated in this one. And the ever -present, blaming of the victim gets raised to epic proportions.

If you are ever tempted to feel pity or compassion or even to empathize with a homeless person, your well-heeled skin flint companions will cheerfully inform you that he is probably a drug addict and ne’er-do-well who has orchestrated his own fate with his careless prior acts. And if the homeless guy is to blame, isn’t it possible that the five year old with terminal cancer actually did something monstrous in another life making her disease not tragic at all but retribution of the cleanest sort?

“Everything happens for a reason” can be used to justify not only self serving behavior and entitlement but callous disregard for the putatively innocent suffering of others. Good lucks, health and opulent wealth could be given to all equally but the powers that be have instead portioned them out to those who truly deserve them. Or so it is thought by the holders of more than their “fair” share of looks, health and money.

And the rest of us walk the earth, first guilty and remorseful, making lists of atonements and wrongs to set right, then confused as to what is was we did wrong that still precludes fate’s smiling countenance being turned our way but certain that there has to be something. And everyone agrees with us. By tacit agreement, those most able to give charity give the least and with the most fanfare and proclaim those less fortunate to be lacking in motivation or proper work ethic or even (and this is said without any irony at all) hope. If the poor would only have confidence in a better world and were they only willing to strive for better luck, they would inevitably receive it in abundance.

Occasionally people are shaken from their certitude by someone truly personal or tragic that cannot be easily explained or maybe even explained at all. But the horror usually gives way to a distaste of those who dwell on such unpleasant things and an ascertain that all would be well if the afflicted could just “get over it.”

And “get over it” can be applied to anything from a patently unfair referee call (as backed up by instant replay) to the attempted systematic genocide of an entire people. Everything from jury nullification to the bankrupting of parents for their unfeeling and ungrateful offspring can be tossed aside as nothing being perfect.

And as I ponder what I want to leave behind, what overriding philosophy I would leave to future generations, I come to the conclusion that karma is as reasonable an underpinning as anything else. Do good because it’s right but when that fails, do good because the evil that you do will come back to bite you in the butt.

I’m okay with that. I’m just baffled by the ease with which the butt bites that seem random and unprompted are explained away. Of course, the further your own butt is from the bite the easier it is to see the error that could have pointed the teeth in the direction of their deserving prey.

All of which begs the question, how can I make up for wrongs I cannot remember, those from lives I cannot even recall? And why do others get to bask in their entitlement for good deeds of which they are likewise clueless, and which they would never voluntarily engage in in this lifetime?

But one thing karma has going for it that fairness does not and that’s its timeline. Be patient. It will all be all right in the end. If not the end of this lifetime than in the next or the one after that.

I remember a discussion about capital punishment that took place on the sit com “All in the Family” in the 1970s. And I think that my opinion about karma might be like Edith’s opinion about capital punishment.

“Archie Bunker: Go ahead, ask your mother, *she* believes in capital punishment.Gloria Stivic: Do you Ma? Edith Bunker: Well, sure. Gloria Stivic: MA? Edith Bunker: Well, as long as it ain’t too severe.

I know that I believe in karma, I’m just not sure I think it’s fair.

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