These past weeks, we begin our experiment of co-operative housing and intentional community life. It has raised to the surface a set of questions for us that seem to revolve around one big question: what is fair?
If I vacuum the floors twice in one week, and another co-op member has not done any household chores, is this fair? How do we share the costs of the food in a way that is considered fair by all of us? What if one member has several guests join us for meals during the week? What if I miss a meal- is it fair to include that cost in my monthly food costs?
What if I want to buy a special item that I will be the only one to eat? Can I fairly include this in the shared food costs of the group? What if someone else in the house eats my special item?
Living in community, trying to get along, and working through conflict in a way that is constructive and helpful, this has activated a spotlight on equity and injustice… it has got me wondering lately about the value of evaluating my life in the terms of fairness.
My wife Robyn relates a story about her elderly mother and this issue of fairness. She was distressed over some news of illness afflicting a family member and she was complaining to Robyn about how unfair this recent happening was- in light of all the other things they had been through. She believed that their family had suffered enough over the years. They had experienced far more loss, sickness and difficulty than other families. It was wrong and undeserved.
Robyn asked one of those questions that some might judge as harsh. But I see her question as both loving and honest.
She asked: “Mom, how did you get to be 75 years old and think that life was fair?”.
Like Robyn’s mother, I have railed against injustice and what I know was undeserved. I can honestly say that it has often been for the sake of others: abused children, the overlooked poor, the marginalized who have no voice.. recently, it has been for my lovely younger brother, Darren, who is fading away with advanced MS.
Yet I must also admit that I have challenged a lack of fairness for my own sake. Robyn’s recent life threatening illness and the impact this had on my own life. I have complained about rain and cool weather on a vacation in Cuba. How unfair of the weather to be so cold and rainy… and on my vacation!
I have done my share of complaining.
I have fussed until I became fuss.
If I was running for election, I would campaign to advance the cause of fairness: to make up for this fault in the way the world works. I long for a world that is fairer than it is. I yearn for insta-karma! I would like our co-op to find a way to live together that is truly fair for all and understood to be fair by all. I would like to go on a well-deserved vacation and have one warm sunny day! Is that too much to ask?
Alas, I am slowly coming around to the realization, regardless of my longing and demanding, that it is not so. That it can never be so.
I have also had Robyn’s question of her mother resonate in my soul: “Dan, how did you get to be 48 years old and still think life was fair?”
Alas, my reinforced belief in the essential fairness of life has been getting shakier and shakier. It is teetering on its last legs. The moral fabric of my life, woven from strands of fairness, is now blown out with holes, worn out and frayed.
I don’t think I can even patch it.
Life is not fair.
In my early 20’s, I stumbled on M. Scott Peck’s classic The Road Less Travelled… his opening words poked yet another hole in things:
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
My friend Chris is an ethicist. He has two brain tumors and is starting chemo and radiation this week. A month ago, in between MRI’s, we were talking about fairness. He said that fairness was only one way of talking about justice. It was the least helpful way. It was sadly the most popular.
His words had more resonance as the cancer cells grow in his brain.
Who was it that taught me that life must be fair?
Why did this belief root itself so deep into my view of the world?
How did it get so tightly woven into my thought-fabric?
This desperate belief in fairness is everywhere I look. I listen to complaints- not only to my own frustration and anger over injustice and personal hurts, but so many of my friends and family.
As I type this, the couple next to me on this ferry ride complain that the on-board food is too expensive now. They shift to an overall complaint about the lousy ferry service, the reduction in sailing times, and the cost of the trip to the island. Two other younger men in front of me are telling stories about mothers who ‘micro-managed’ them and who were hyper-critical of everything they did. Do I dare to ask them all how they got this far into life…
And so, I wonder…
I wonder if I can let go what is fair with who does what chores and how often in the co-op house? I wonder if I can trust that I will do what I do for love of having a tidy house… and others will also do what they feel called to do. I wonder if I can trust that we will all respond to what is needed with the gifts that we have and the time we have available that week? I wonder if I can love Darren more deeply for the life he still has in his body?
And I wonder if I can live into each day with a more profound gratitude in all that is.