Is life truly unfair or just unfathomable?
By E.F Nicholson
“One of the most powerful shocks of the Middle Passage is the collapse of our tacit contract with the universe–the assumption that if we act correctly, if we are of good heart and good intentions, things will work out. We assume a reciprocity with the universe. If we do our part, the universe will comply. Many ancient stories, including the Book of Job, painfully reveal the fact that there is no such contract, and everyone who goes through the Middle Passage is made aware of it.” James Hollis
I really love this passage by James Hollis. It’s a brutal truth that reveals itself when our belief of life’s reciprocity gets continuously shot down. It’s an understandable assumption in our “golden rule” universe. We are told “what we give is what we get”, “how you treat others is how you will be treated” and now the immensely popular “law of attraction”, promising that if you want something badly enough you can manifest it into your life. Yet painfully we discover that these understandings of how our relationship with the universe works, are completely out of touch with how the universe actually works. We forget the contract we conjured up within our mind never did get signed off on by the universe.
We all to varying degrees experience moments when life just feels blatantly and unquestionably unfair. The “bad things happen to good people” experience can create a certain validation of life’s existential absurdity, which if swallowed whole can take us to a very despairing and disenchanted place. Then even if in our own personal lives we manage to shield ourselves from this, it’s impossible to look out into the world and see such abject and obscene poverty and injustice without questioning the inherit fairness of life.
Of course, seeing unfairness and injustice and attempting to change bad situations into better ones is the basis for all constructive social change. Yet there is a certain type of betrayal and unfairness that is just found in life not going the way we want it, no matter how reasonable we think that expectation is. The loss of a child is an example of the type of pain that seems to go against the natural order of things. Yet that pain is very much part of the natural order, as felt by millions through the world, from the beginning of time, though it is an event in which the randomness can makes us question the fairness of life.
For me, at least, when it comes to the more painful and traumatic events in my life that have left me emotional scarred and wounded, they were not circumstances in any way that I choose to create. Sometime things just happen. Certain dysfunctional and dark forces sweep you in their path and you come out effected and marked. So you are left with these anguished questions of did I somehow karmically deserve this? Was I to blame? What part am I now responsible for? Why did this happen to me? Wrestling with the unfairness of what happens ended up creating a circular and infinite loop that I was never really able to resolve.
So at some point I had to be willing to step out and choose to stop viewing life and people in the binary terms of fair or unfair, and rather just accept that some things for now I just don’t know or understand. Maybe I just don’t have all the data required. Maybe I don’t hold a wider enough sense of self-awareness or deep enough insight into how the web of life works. Maybe I will at some point in my life, or maybe I won’t. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke so eloquently puts in it.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Knowing this doesn’t assume that life is meaningless and events are all random, rather our need for some certainty or fairness from life just doesn’t fit with how things work. Knowing this allows us to not feel so shocked and devastated when life doesn’t go our way, no matter how deserving of it we may feel.
We are faced with the humbling reality that we actually don’t really know how it works and neither does anyone else. (Be wary of anyone who claims with certainty they do.) This invites us to embrace the mystery and make peace with our inability to have it all worked out. Life is actually unfathomable and rather inheritably unfair and we may just have to leave it at that. From here we start to be able to live life on life’s terms, not ours. We live in how things are, rather how we expect them to be. It also anchors us more deeply in the present, as often grappling with life’s unfairness occurs around the processing of what was, rather than what is; what happened, rather than what’s happening.
In my experience this is not easy. That need to make our own tacit rules, to set up some laws of life and rules that follow some kind of order, runs very deep within us. The utter uncertainty of life and its unpredictable twists and turns threatens our ego’s need for control and security. “Relax, nothing is under control”, is easier said than done. Yet as we come back to the simple act of acceptance this can give us a certain kind of peace. Acceptance of not knowing isn’t capitulation or defeat. Rather just questioning the legitimacy that somehow we have a right to know everything or the vanity and narcissism that this is even somehow its’ possible. As we no longer command the tides of life, we really start be at home with our life. So we can look at our lives like the night sky littered with stars. As we gaze in awe above we just surrender to the fact its beauty, mystery and depth is just unfathomable and that’s ok.
Featured image by http://www.wyliebeckert.com/