What Is Fair?



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            WE SOMETIMES HEAR people say, when they are struck by misfortune: "Why is this happening to me? It's not fair! I don't deserve this! I've never done anything wrong or bad!" (We might even have said the same thing ourselves). Some recount all the good they have done, like following certain moral rules and religious practices, donating money to charity, helping people, becoming vegetarian, etc., thereby revealing that they had done such things with the idea of getting something back in return, and not as an expression of their understanding.

            Who said life is or should be fair? Wherever did we get this notion from? To expect life to be fair only increases our problems. But, though life might not be fair according to our standards, it is impartial; the rain wets rich and poor, young and old, male and female, intelligent and dull, powerful and powerless, beautiful and ugly alike; life does not show favoritism, and cannot be petitioned, bribed, or cajoled. If we understood more about life's impartiality, we would accept things that we cannot change, and would not waste so much time complaining, which only makes matters worse; as an old proverb puts it: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." We cannot stop the rain, but we can carry an umbrella.

            When things go well for us, we accept it without question, and never ask: "Why me? Why not these others?" Our ways of looking at things are self-centered and biased, and of course we get only a narrow picture, like when we look through a keyhole. We cannot reasonably complain that this is all there is to be seen.

            Why do we not make use of the world's wisdom? There is an abundance of it, and always has been, just waiting for people to pick it up and make it their own. We live in spiritual poverty, when all around us is a treasury of wisdom. And it is amazing how simple aphorisms can strike a chord in us ― and this phrase 'strike a chord' is very apt, because something resonates within us as we recognize and thrill to something from outside ― and make a great deal of difference in our lives, like this one from Lao Tsu, for example, written over 2,500 years ago: "Accept misfortune as the bodily condition, for without a body, how could there be misfortune?" Thus, we can be somewhat reconciled with misfortune, and learn how to deal with it better than we do.

            If we believe that the universe was created by and is maintained by an omnipotent Being or God, we are faced with a dilemma, namely: Why do things go 'wrong,' or is that all part of the plan? It is a question that most thoughtful people have asked. Do we see the hand of a good, kind, omnipotent, and omniscient Being in the world? Even a human father, with a modicum of love, would not allow his children to suffer as in places like Somalia, if he could do anything to prevent it. So what is all this talk about "God is Love?" The Somali parents love their children, but cannot feed them; it isn't because they don't want to, but because they are unable to. The Somali warlords are able to feed the children, but don't want to; they have power, but no love. Now, if 'God is Love,' but doesn't do anything to help people in distress, it must be because he is not able to; and if he is able to do something but doesn't do so it means he is not Love, no matter what people claim. One cancels out the other; they can't both stand.

            A Scottish philosopher by the name of David Hume, (1711-1776), looked objectively at nature thus:

            "One would imagine that this grand production has not received the last hand of the maker, so little finished is every part, and so coarse are the strokes with which it is executed. Thus the winds ... assist men in navigation, but how oft, rising up to tempests and hurricanes, do they become pernicious! Rains are necessary to nourish all the plants and animals of the earth, but how often are they defective! how often excessive! There is nothing so advantageous in the universe but what frequently becomes pernicious by its excess or defeat; nor has nature guarded with the requisite accuracy against all discord or confusion.

            "A perpetual war is kindled among all living creatures. Necessity, hunger, and want stimulate the strong and courageous; fear, anxiety and terror agitate the weak and infirm. The first entrance into life gives anguish to the newborn infant and to its wretched parent; weakness, impotence and distress attend every stage of life, and it is at last finished in agony and horror ... Observe, too ... the curious artifices of nature, in order to embitter the life of every living being ... consider that innumerable race of insects, which either are bred on the body of each animal, or, flying about, infix their stings in him. Every animal is surrounded by enemies, which incessantly seek his misery and destruction. Man is the greatest enemy of man. Oppression, injustice, contempt, violence, sedition, war, calumny, treachery, fraud; by these they mutually torment each other ...

            "Look around this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences ... How hostile and destructive to each other! ... The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children."

            A pessimistic way of looking at things? You may think so, if you are in the habit of looking at the beauty of nature and ignoring the ugliness, or the terrifying and relentless forces that nature often throws at us, its admirers, without regard for our lives or property. No, this is realistic, and nature doesn't give a damn about our feelings; let us be clear about this; we live forever on the rim of a dormant volcano, so to speak, or are sitting on the back of a sleeping tiger, which might wake up at any minute and devour us. To say to the volcano or the tiger: "It's not fair!" would be a waste of breath!

            This is an age of great skepticism, but though this could be one of our greatest assets, it is more often shallow and superficial skepticism, and based upon arrogance, than founded upon perception. Just because we have been to school for a number of years ― and even to university ― and know how to read, write, and a few other things, many of us appear to think we can safely dismiss things with just a cursory examination, or none at all; our mental life becomes impoverished by such an attitude. And Democracy, whereby people are given equal rights ― the illiterate and ignorant on a par with the learned and cultured, for example ― goes to our heads, which we then hold high with pride, like the branches of a tree without fruit.

            Skepticism born of inquiry and experience is a healthy thing, and should be encouraged, to counteract the dull and lazy trait in many of us of merely believing; while skepticism of the kind that comes from our personal preferences and prejudice is, and can only be, narrow and limiting.

            Many people either had no interest in religion to begin with or, having perceived something negative about it ― and let's be honest, and admit that there are plenty of negative things about organized and formal religion ― have rejected it completely, without trying to extract anything positive and useful from it. In some cases, people retain, or continue to be influenced by, the superstitious aspects of religion, and this is rather like throwing away the banana and eating the skin.

            To extract the essence and discard or disregard the packaging (if we must, though if we understand, there is really no harm in keeping the form, too), requires intelligence and persistence, as it ― the essence ― is sometimes deeply hidden ― like diamonds in the ground ― and is not immediately obvious. It behooves us to look deeper into things, to try to find something good; it is always there. I know some people whose house was completely destroyed by fire, but instead of bemoaning their fate, they sifted through the ashes until they came upon their melted-down jewelry. Any thing, any situation, might be looked at in different ways, and something positive drawn from it. A loss doesn't have to be a complete loss, unless we allow it to be. And anyway, what can be lost will eventually be lost, but understanding this can be a source of gain. And how?

            Because when something is lost, or disaster strikes, we might suffer less from it than we otherwise would by reflecting on it thus: "Well, it came, and it went. What is surprising about this? How could it be any different, since nothing lasts forever?"

            People reject religion outright probably because they saw only the form ― the container ― and never bothered to investigate it to see what it contained, or just assumed that it is something outmoded, anachronistic, and of no importance to them. Yet we often see people turning blindly and superstitiously to religion when something unfortunate happens to them ― they lose their job, have an accident, become love sick or heartbroken, or someone near and dear to them falls sick or dies, etc., etc. ― and pray to 'God,' Jesus, Mary, the Buddha, Kwan Yin, Sai Baba, or whoever else they can think of, to help them in their distress. Well, I can understand this, of course, and am not saying it's bad, even though it's not right, because when we are healthy, there's no need to go to the doctor. But I also think it's a pity that people leave it until something unfortunate happens, as it's often too late then. It is better to think ahead, like when planting seeds for a future harvest; they do not grow and bear fruit immediately.

            Vast numbers of people are scornful of religion and anything connected with it; but are they so complete in themselves, one wonders, and have such a degree of philosophical fortitude that they would be self-reliant and never turn to religion for help and support, no matter what happens? Maybe, but probably not. Even seemingly hard and materialistic people crack under strain, and fall back ― or try to ― on something that they think is there when they need it but which really isn't, as they never bothered to examine or cultivate it.

            Self-interest impels many people to turn to religion. Driven by pain, fear, hope and despair, they embrace religion, and finding some solace and explanation therein, they relax, and sink into the mud of complacency, not knowing why they call themselves 'Buddhists,' 'Christians,' 'Hindus,' and so on. Instead of inquiring, and looking deeper, they rest content with the little they have found so far, and take the apparent for the real, the container for the contents. Many of them remain like this for a long time ― some for all their lives ― but some are gently or rudely awoken from their slumbers by one or another of Life's countless methods, and urged to continue their journey. They are the lucky ones; most of them insist on sleeping long and soundly.

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Last Updated on:  03/02/2001 05:40 AM