Sunday, November 25, 2012
For better or worse?
November 25, 2012
Life is not fair.
Beginning with this cliché may shrink the number of readers to a record low this week. There is a reason for the risk, however.
Our emotional aversion to unfairness can be a major contributor to relational difficulties. Despite our resistance to injustice, confronting life’s essential unfairness straight-on is a necessary step in self-awareness. Failure to deal with this reality seriously undermines the skills of self-management necessary for development of good relationships.
Last week we considered the “Green Eggs and Ham” phenomenon—our rejection of portions of our emotional archives because we both dislike these uncomfortable contents and are often confused as well by their shape and power to influence us. But we dislike them additionally for another reason: they provide indisputable living evidence that life is unfair, a particularly unattractive dish of green eggs and ham.
The terrible years of the dust storms, the poverty of the depression years, the death of my mother—all of these experiences are etched inerasably in my emotional archives along with the meaning that I made to serve as context to these experiences. Although these life events were filled with drama and intensity, they are difficult to revisit for two reasons: one—easy to see—the content includes the pain, loneliness, fear and confusion inherent in those early childhood experiences. These contents, initially painful, remain deeply unpleasant to experience in retrospect. The second reason, while less obvious, is equally uncomfortable and unavoidable—these events confront me with the harsh reality of life’s brutal unfairness.
Why did the dirt come and smother Spot, the baby calf with the soft ears? Was that fair? Why did my beautiful mother whose hands made bread and whose voice made music die and leave me? What that fair? And why did I have to wear old shoes that hurt my feet? Was it fair that I not have new shoes? My childhood meaning was that the world was dangerously unfair; my adolescent meaning was that if God loved justice, then He did not love me or He would have insured more fairness in my life. My adult meaning was that if I wanted fairness in my life, I would have to insure that it happened—no one else would do it for me, so I set out to get “my fair share of the pie.”
But when I entered into my first “love” relationship as an adult, I bought into the fairy tale expectations of romance: this person—wonderful in all regards, of course—this person would insure that I never experienced unfairness again. Among many other unverbalized impossible things, that was what “love” meant.
No one will be surprised to learn that this relationship ended disastrously. However, the disaster is not the point upon which I want to focus here. I want you to think with me about the belief system that formed the unspoken context of the disaster—the belief that “love” can (and will) alter the reality of the world in which we live, and cancel the impact of the bent and broken aspects of our human personhood.
No matter with what intensity we cling to this "impossible dream," reality remains the raw material out of which we must shape our lives. Life is unfair, people are imperfect, and relationships can neither cancel the reality nor erase the impact of the emotional archives with which we live.
This is a very un-fairy tale truth. But once we have faced this fact straight-on, we can begin to develop both self-awareness and a clearer sense of self-responsibility. Living well relationally requires us to assume specifically and consciously our basic human responsibility to live with each other the way we are. Relationships do not provide a “maturity pass.” Indeed, mutually supportive relationships are in some aspects the by-product of accepting the life-long necessity to live with productive, sober joy in a world where our hunger for both justice and mercy can never be met in full.
Relationships cannot substitute for the unavoidable necessity to come to grips with human limitations, and the unfair, unkind and sometimes destructive acts that express our human brokenness. And we cannot escape awareness that the universe around us that gives the gift of beauty and life gives as well the stone cold destructiveness of death.
Relational skills that permit long, mutually constructive caring connections are those that are forged in full awareness of the unfairness of the natural phenomena in which our fragile life span is lived, and the injustice that stems inevitably from the human brokenness that all of us carry.
How do you deal with unfairness? How do you handle the "undeserved" in relationships?
Clear thinking about unfairness does not deal with pain alone, however.
Thinking with you that the friendship, laughter, and marvelous food that graced my life and table Thanksgiving Day were unfair too. And there was “unfair” beauty into the bargain as well: “unfair” flowers and candle light, and the "unfair" sensual delight of the satin heavy weight of a silver fork in my hand. Now who can explain that?
See you next week.