This weekend as I powered through episodes of “This American Life,” it was the show called “No Fair” that got me thinking about how we’ve come to believe that we’re deserving of a “fair” shake, even where our concept of fairness is totally subjective.
Clearly, my almost 2-year-old grandson is not concerned with the idea of what is fair. He spends his time grappling with what he wants and needs, using all the means available to him to express it. On the other hand, my 6-year-old granddaughter has gotten especially wrapped up in her idea of “fair.” She notices when things are not fair, in particular—such as when her baby brother splashes her face in the pool—but is also showing empathy and an effort to be fair in her own actions.
In our culture, we have come to believe there should be fairness even when we know that, in reality, things are rarely fair. Perhaps what is really at work is that, although we hope for an equality of justice, what we long for is to find peace when we do not get it.
MAKING PEACE WITH OUR PAST
What person hasn’t experienced being wronged or victimized? We’ve all been there and know when it happens, and feel that sense of unfairness when it does. Our school days serve as a good example. I can think of many times I felt bullied by peers. I knew their behavior was unfair, and I felt mistreated. Years later, I understood that this spectacle of childhood was a shared one with most, and the benefit of maturity was to see those episodes as insignificant in the broader context of life.
Beyond childhood, however, there are the more significant wrongs done to us by family, friends and even complete strangers. How we choose to deal with those injustices tells something about our state of mind and shapes our story going forward.
I recall the story of a woman I knew who, in her 60s, made it clear that she preferred to forgive and move on in all issues of the past, including those with her parents. She related the story of a time she and her husband went into business with her parents buying farmland during the 1970s as prices were on the rise.
But then, the 1980 the farm crisis hit the Midwest and interest rates rose rapidly. Her parents panicked and forced the sale of all the lands they had purchased together. As a result, she and her husband went into significant debt, and her parents elected to write her out of their will to cover those debts.
A few years later the prices of farmland recovered, and then increased exponentially. If her parents would have let the land investment for a few years, they could have all ridden gallantly out the crisis. Instead, the woman and her husband lost everything, and never fully recovered financially.
This woman chose not to be bitter about the incident, however, and maintained in a positive relationship with her parents. And when her father died, she made a point to visit her mother each week until she, too, passed away. The woman knew that her quality of life would be diminished if she remained bitter about the situation.
FORGIVENESS OR MAKING PEACE?
I had years of a rocky relationship with my genetic mother and admit to rehashing the incidents of our history for far too long. Thankfully I did reach a point where I stopped being angry and gave up seeking resolution from her. I accepted that the past was what it was and recognized that my mother made choices based on her capacity at the time. Because I no longer felt anger about the past, there was nothing to forgive as it related to my mother. I call this making peace with the past, but by some definitions it meets the criteria of forgiveness.
Still, I think of forgiveness as being a choice that is more emotionally invested and significant. A powerful example comes from Story Corp and involves a woman named Mary Johnson, who explains the path she took to forgive the man—Oshea Isreal—who killed her son. In her words, she speaks of Oshea, who has “become family” to her, and discusses how she came to forgive him and how it changed her life. Her example of forgiveness is a powerful message.
WHAT IS STORY OF MAKING PEACE WITH THE PAST?
While we sometimes take years to make peace with the major injustices of our past, the daily bits of unfairness can set us off kilter too, ultimately impacting our wellbeing. The person who cuts in front of us on the road, the rude phone call, the bicker with our spouse. These injustices quickly wear us down. Whenever I feel a surge of self-righteous indignation from feeling wronged, I try to reign it in by remembering that we are all perfectly imperfect humans.
The times I’ve been unfairly dealt are balanced by those times I was unfair with others. Humility can be the space where we all find peace with unfairness, accepting that sometimes the only change to be made is the one within. And that difference navigates our story.