Life isn’t fair

Life is most decidedly not fair. People gain success when they’re kind and good and loving. And people gain success when they live with blatant and sometimes even harmful disregard for others.

By Amy Butler

I grew up in a family with five children, so I don’t really recall life ever being very fair. There was always somebody who got more ice cream or less consequences than I did.

Much of the squabbling in the house was focused around this issue of what was fair and what wasn’t.

My mother would often sigh with frustration. “Life is not fair!” she would say over and over.

But it never seemed quite right to me. We were taught to work hard and do our best. If we did, we understood we’d be successful in school and in life.

This personal urgency for fairness has continued into adulthood, even though I have learned, sometimes painfully, that life is indeed not fair, and that doing the right thing doesn’t always mean you will land on the top of the pile.

I was reminded of this truth this week at a graveside service over which I was presiding. Family members were invited to share reflections, and the daughter of the deceased recounted a conversation in which her father named a famous and successful individual and asked, “Do you know how he got to where he is in life?”

“No,” she said.

He answered, “By working hard and being kind.”

He then named another famous and successful figure and asked the same question, “Do you know how he got to where he is in life?”

“Kindness and hard work?” she asked.

“No, cheating and disregard for others,” he answered.

His point was, of course, that life is not fair. Sometimes doing the right thing pays off in the end, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In a recent article in The Atlantic called, “Why Kids Care More About Achievement Than Helping Others,” a new study done at Harvard University reports that while we say we want our children to learn the value of empathy and compassion, of putting others first, in actuality we teach them that achievement and success are the most important things in life.

Children in the study, for example, were overwhelmingly more likely to agree with the following: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

And we probably send that message to our children because deep inside ourselves we kind of believe the same thing.

But the truth is that it’s wholly possible to gain all the things our society values and end up deeply and desperately unhappy, bearing a life vacant of relationships that matter and a legacy that lingers.

I think about this all the time when I stand up to preach Jesus’ invitation to love, always love. It would be nice to offer a fail safe guarantee: if you work to cultivate a life filled with empathy, love, kindness, you will be rewarded with all the things we find important. Successful.

But life isn’t fair. When we say we walk in the way of the one who died because he insisted on love, we might even anticipate that easy success will not be the order of the day. Sometimes we live sacrificially and care for others and practice kindness and love folks who are unlovable, and we don’t end up rich, successful, accomplished.

Still, as The Atlantic points out, “Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity, and the core of everything that makes society civilized.” Living a life that matters means living a life marked by love.

There’s really no point in rehashing that frustrating question from childhood. Life is most decidedly not fair. People gain success when they’re kind and good and loving. And people gain success when they live with blatant and sometimes even harmful disregard for others.

As we look at our lives, the question we should be asking may be less about success we can measure and more about the quality of the lives we live. In other words, I suspect that ultimately success looks less about the money in your bank account and the position on your business card, and more about the crowd of folks gathered around your grave on a sticky summer afternoon grieving your absence.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.