"It's not fair, but it's what's happening."
I often have to advise clients on things that aren't fair. Injustices that can't be averted. Hypocrisy that has to slip by unchecked. Misdeeds great and small for which the law either offers no protection or offers protection only at great cost.
It absolutely sucks, and I am often left casting about for words to soothe or otherwise make good something that feels like a gut-wrenching violation to my client. In most cases it can't be done.
This week I read two excellent pieces on this.
In the first, grief and adversity speciality Tim Lawrence puts his finger right on the money when he says that not everything happens for a reason, and hardship is always bloody hard. A lot of life is chaotic and fundamentally unfair. Terrible things happen to good people. Extraordinary things happen for the undeserving. Denying that doesn't get us anywhere.
His takeaway, which I am seizing and putting securely in my toolkit of excellent words, is the following:
Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.
Phwoar. Powerful stuff. Deeply human stuff. Stuff that lets you stop fighting the thing and get on with the better task: figuring out how to carry the hurt along with you.
He's talking about grief and injury and loss, but his words resonated just as loudly in the context of clients who are dealing with assholes, or an unjust decision, or awareness of a system that is stacked against them.
The second piece was a piece by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian titled "Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person".
Click-bait title aside, Burkeman has an excellent point, related to Lawrence's: when we think life is fair, we attribute failures, losses, illness, and all manner of smaller ills to the victim.
And the thing is, our sense of fairness runs deep, even when, rationally, we can see that it often does not play out. Here's Burkeman:
Faced with evidence of injustice, we’ll certainly try to alleviate it if we can – but, if we feel powerless to make things right, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: we’ll convince ourselves that the world isn’t so unjust after all.
Alain de Botton touches on this in a TED talk in which he points out that the very poor of the Victorian era were termed the "unfortunates". He contrasts that with popular commentary on Western poverty today, saying the Victorian poor were unfortunate victims of their station in life, whereas today's poor are lazy and to blame for their position. After all, in a fair world, if you're not doing well, there must be a reason.
That narrative appeals to our story and pattern-hungry brain, but it simply isn't true. The complexity of the multiple systems we live in and the subtleties of causation are just too immense for our tiny minds (they're good, but they include millenia-old errors and limitations).
What I take from these pieces, and what I hope will help my clients, is the following:
- Terrible things happen all the time, to everyone you've ever met. This doesn't really mean anything about you or anyone else.
- Not everything can be fixed; some things can only be carried.
- The world isn't fair. And it can be comforting to remember that.