Hardly a day passes where I don’t curse someone’s good luck, while cursing my own bad luck. I look around and see good people who get shit on and bad people who seem to have it all. I look at my life and I wonder why I put in so much effort and discipline into trying to achieve things when it seems like reward and punishment is arbitrary and I am never getting what I feel like I deserve.
I think we all want to reside in a world that conforms to a standard, uniform disbursement of the good and the bad. We want natural justice meted out in a way that seems logical and proportionate to the actions, effort, and goodness of each person. We want all of our effort, discipline, sacrifice, and goodness to bring measurable rewards and we want the lack of these things in others to produce measurable impediments to success. In short, we want a fair world. Not necessarily because we want some people punished and others rewarded but because it would make it easier for us to know if we are headed in the right direction. We could stack our rewards and look at what we have earned through our labor, just like a runner hanging medals on his wall for distances conquered.
But life is not like that. The world is not fair and it never will be. Some undeserving people will have it all and some amazing souls will be left with nothing and I have realized that it doesn’t matter one bit. And as soon as I realized that, I was able to free myself of committing to actions because I thought that the world or time or people would reward me and I began to commit to them because I knew they were right and I knew the world would be a better place if others adopted similar actions.
Hidden bargains with others and the world.
It doesn’t matter if you believe you are bargaining with God, karma, nature, other people, whatever; we all make hidden bargains with ourselves and the world. We think that if we just love someone enough that they will eventually come to love us. If I am the perfect child my parents will stop fighting. If I work my ass off day and night at this job I will eventually get recognized and promoted. We think that if we just do enough good stuff that we are accumulating the currency to later trade in and cancel out the bad stuff. Well, shit doesn’t work that way.
You can love someone with all your heart and they may still lie and cheat. You can be a perfect child and your parents may still be at each other’s throat and you can work yourself to an early grave and never get an inch closer to a promotion or recognition and you know why? Because life isn’t fucking fair sometimes and we need to stop believing that it is because that belief is preventing a lot of forward movement in our lives.
The desire for justice as a cause of anxiety.
When we feel like we should be treated fairly, and we are not, we develop an animosity towards the world. A constant feeling of, “what’s the point?”. We see other people getting what they want, and we believe they don’t deserve, and we rage against the fates and say, “Why the hell can’t I get the things that I want? I work so hard! This isn’t fair!”. Resentment grows in us. A resentment for the people we see getting what they want. A resentment for the world and its ability to randomly throw shade or sun. A resentment on the effort it takes to make a change and to build a meaningful life.
All of this resentment leaks out daily and the sewage of it contaminates every interaction we have. We compare ourselves, and our lot in life, with others and we are disappointed if we feel like we have exerted ourselves more and have less. The problem is, we think that the good or difficult things we do now are to get better things later on and that is obviously not true.
Believing that good actions will produce good results.
There is no equation of what actions will produce what results. There is no way of saying how much love exactly you must give to have that perfect relationship or how much personal “goodness” exactly is required to get your parents to stop fighting. We do know that doing positive actions, in and of themselves, produce generally positive moods, but that is about as close as we can get to formulating an equation about the relationship of good actions and good results. But that fact alone does not satisfy us.
We want a specific math of how much good stuff we have to add to other good stuff to get to future better stuff. Or, we want to know how much good stuff we have to do to cancel the bad stuff we did to get future better stuff. We want to feel like the universe is fairly distributing its gifts and penalties because we have convinced ourselves that is the best system of distribution. We want good people to receive good things and bad people to receive bad things because that is the democratic arrangement of reward and punishment that we have decided makes the most sense and that we have implemented in our world.
The problem with this is, nature doesn’t deal in morality. It doesn’t have a perspective on our subjective ideas about what is good or bad or reward or punishment. All nature does is deliver things and then leaves it up to us to decide if those things are good or a bad for us. And those things exist in the nuances of perspective. Some things that are good for some are bad for others and depending upon where you stand you will cry or rejoice accordingly. It is not at all that life is unfair or fair. The truth is, we THINK we deserve something in this world when we actually deserve absolutely nothing and anything that we do get has no intrinsic value outside of our desire to quantify and then qualify it in terms of its worth to us in the given moment.
Change your idea of fairness
Life is completely fair in so much that its rewards and punishments are delivered with total randomness to all people. The neighbor we see with the perfect wife and the perfect car and the perfect job could lose it all in a heartbeat and be left broken and destroyed. And a destitute family living on the brink of survival could be suddenly thrown into amazing wealth by an inheritance or a lottery win. The fairness in all of that is that anything can happen to anyone at anytime.
When you rest your awareness in the knowledge that everyone is subject to the laws of randomness as to what they are thrown in life you may begin to slip down to the depths of some sort of existential or nihilistic rabbit hole. It’s not hard to make the leap from, “life isn’t fair” to “what does it matter what I do?”
But accepting that life isn’t fair gives us a new kind of freedom. We don’t have to weigh and measure and compare our efforts and rewards and punishments against others. All we have to do is what is good and right for us in the moment and not concern ourselves with what future results may or may not come from that. The good action alone is reward enough. So how do we even know how to act in this random, unfair world?
Acting in a random world
In his work, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, philosopher Immanuel Kant takes on the lofty task of establishing a clear understanding of moral principles and natural justice based upon reason. Being a moral objectivist, Kant has some very strong ideas about the reasons and necessity for doing things. I do not have the luxury of delving deep into the entirety of his very dense philosophical claims in this post, but what I can do is talk about one intuitively essential piece of information that can be distilled from Kant’s moral philosophies that may help us better handle the lack of fairness in life and take a more objective approach to our actions in regard to those things we know we should do, despite the outcome. The idea that Kant puts forward is called the Categorical Imperative.
The Categorical Imperative can be simply stated as such;
“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
What does this mean?
It means that we should constantly strive to act in a way that, if the entire world would adopt that action, we would be comfortable living in that world. Let’s say an activist blows up an abortion clinic because he wants to stop the killing of unborn fetuses. In his mind that action of blowing up that clinic was morally acceptable and good because the result of that action will produce less dead fetuses, but if I asked that same person if they wanted to live in a world where everyone was allowed to blow up anything they didn’t agree with, I have to imagine that they would say that would be a terrible world to live in. The perspective of the man, that the results of his action justify the means, is not in keeping with his desire to live in a world that is free of such actions and that would suggest that his actions are not truly good.
As another example, if I give a starving man a loaf of bread and that man happens to go off and bomb an abortion clinic, the fact that the man blew up an abortion clinic has nothing to do with the good act of me giving the loaf of bread. I would always want to live in a world where people give starving people food to eat and survive. It is a good action that I would love to see others adopt, despite the eventual result that came of it, in this example.
The fact is, we shouldn’t do things because we think that they will produce some beneficial or negative karmic response later in the future. We should do things because we know they are good and right, no matter if we are rewarded or punished for them. We should do things that we would want others to do for us if we were in the same position as them. And we should refrain from doing things that we would not want others to do to us if we were in their position. It is not an ethic of reciprocity, bargained out with a nature that we insist must be fair, but an ethic of logic in understanding what would be the most adoptable course of action for the world, despite the difficulty of or lack of accolade for adopting it.
Our ideas of fairness in this world can be an impediment to positive, personal action when we do not see results coming from those actions. We can become disillusioned with the prospects for the eventual fruit of our discipline, effort, goodness, and sacrifice. We tie our personal development perspectives into mathematical ideas of; “If I do this, then I will get that”, and when the sum is not delivered in full we find someone or something to blame, cursing those that seem to have more than us despite their lack of effort.
When you fall into this trap, and you are struggling to find the reasons to continue a personal development journey because you are not seeing the rewards, remember that the arbitrary nature of fairness exists for all people and doing good, meaningful and important things in your life because you expect a future reward is not the reason to do them. You do those things, you walk the hard road and you approach life with a zeal for good living because you want to live in a world where everyone approaches life in that way, for better or for worse, fair or not. A world like that is one worth living in.