Thursday, June 09, 2005

Life Is Not Fair

Mulan and my mother are still asleep and today is a big workday, so I’m going to write a few thoughts down before they wake up. And I guess some might think I’m just spouting off now because of the big response to the This American Life piece and now I’m pontificating or something. And well…yes. I guess so. I am a little bit. But it’s been such an overwhelming response, I got almost fifty more letters just this morning! And I guess I’m indulging the fact that I have a few more people’s eyes to read what I have to say. I have to remind myself that this will all calm down soon and I’ll be back to complaining about five year olds or something.

So, that said… This is what I've been turning over in my head recently.

Life is SO not fair. That’s something my dad said all the time while I grew up and I think probably everyone’s parents said that. Well, without the SO part. So here: Life’s not fair. But I never really believed that. I thought God sorted it all out in the end. I had a vague idea that there was ultimate justice. And this had effects down to the smallest interactions.

For example, I am a person who has a very hard time haggling for something. And I have spent time in South America and Asia where you have to haggle for everything. And I would think, “If they overcharge me for this or that item, then that’s taking advantage of me and that act is on their head and they will deal with that when they meet their maker.” And then I would just pay them the price they asked at first as a matter of pride. Like, it’s not up to me to make sure this person behaves with dignity.

This makes me seem ridiculous, and when I write that it does seem ridiculous. But I’m trying to say that these ideas (like life is not fair) aren’t just in place when one considers the big questions in life, it affects even the smallest interactions.

When I stopped all magical belief, including God, it struck me like thunder that everyone was getting away with everything they could get away with and there was not going to be any God to sort it out. And that’s such a difficult bitter pill to swallow, that life is not fair. Life is not fair in the extreme.

The way nature works is not fair either. Survival of the fittest: not fair. I mean, unless you are fit in the ways that nature dictates is fit.

Anyway, I suddenly realized I had to defend myself against others who were trying to take advantage of me. It was all up to me. It felt really cold and sad. I had to defend myself not just against the big forces of chance, but even against this person trying to charge me four dollars for something she's charging one dollar for right behind me

And there’s no remedy for that cold and sad realization. Not at least, one I have found. It’s stark and it makes me feel like an adult in all the worst ways. But then, I had this whole new appreciation for what does enforce some fairness in life. Like governments and laws. Who said that great phrase? ”Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” Yes. That’s what society does. That’s why we aren’t animals all out for our individual selves. We come together collectively to help insure the survival of the whole group and in that process we make things a little more fair for those who can’t insure that fairness themselves.

That’s one of the worst things that religion does, teach people to be compliant with gross unfairness. Religion does this by inculcating and idea of ultimate justice after death. This makes the paupers happy and content – they will get their reward. I know that most religious people would say that Jesus inspires them to behave in ways that are altruistic and heroic and that all Jesus was about was helping the poor. And yes, I can see how Jesus is an inspiration in that.

But all I have to say to that is two things: Jesus did use the idea of reward when it came to helping the poor. He didn’t say to help the poor because it’s fundamentally unfair and that a more balanced financial distribution is better for everyone. He said to be good to the poor because if you do you get rewarded in heaven. Also, all I have to say is that Bush says Jesus is his favorite philosopher and look at what he’s done for the poor. Just make them a whole lot poorer.

So, life is unfair. This is one of the hardest parts, for me, of letting go of God. And it’s unfair in ways that no government laws could ever change. People die on the brink of great promise in their life. It doesn’t always work out for the best. We are fantastically vulnerable to having everything we hold dear be killed, betray us, reject us. And that is a harsh and hard way to see the world.

But I think it’s accurate. And I realized that I was willing to trade accuracy for a fantasy. AND, weirdly, this harsh acceptance has led to such a deep appreciation for so much in my life. I would call myself a very happy person. I enjoy every day – or nearly every day that I am alive. It caused me to care about others, to increase the money I give to charity and to make sure that that charity is doing what it says it’s doing. It has caused me to be even more politically active and try to make the world a slightly more fair place for other people. It has made me discover science and the scientific method and it has given me a consistent way for evaluating the world. That is no small thing, by the way.

I have come to realize that maybe one of the best things that has come out of my whole experience has nothing to do with God. It’s that I realize that I respect the truth and that there are systematic methods for arriving at truth -- or what we can bet is closest to truth -- and that thousands of years of scholarship has gone into refining these methods. I truly sit on the shoulders of giants in this way. I am receiving the fruits of many people’s efforts over thousands of years who have figured out how to think systematically and come up with information that is reliable and re-testable and all that. And that gives me a great calm. I have a system for looking at the world.

It’s had all kinds of tangible effects too. Like I don’t spend time, or excessive time, around people I don’t like simply to be nice. Time is so limited and valuable. I know I am speaking in platitudes and stating the obvious, but I have to say, this came to me in a whole new way after I grew up, FINALLY.

Okay, now I have to go make Mulan put on clothes. It’s crazy beautiful here in Hawaii. I really hope I get to retire in Kauai someday. I like Oahu, but my heart belongs to Kauai. Yesterday I think I spent more time in the water that I ever have before. Mulan did this dolphin quest experience – they have a dolphin lagoon here and about five dolphins in it. They give you all this literature about how Dolphin Quest is good to the dolphins and they don’t force the dolphins to do excessive tricks. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that Mulan had the best two hours learning about dolphins yesterday. They gave a class where they showed a human skull (a fake one) and a real dolphin skull and they spent about twenty minutes learning the differences in the skulls and what mammals were and how we can tell they are mammals. Wow. I wish I’d had that when I was a kid. Or maybe I did hear all that stuff (well, I certainly didn’t do a dolphin experience) and it washed over me. In any case, I was so rapt. It was really interesting. Then Mulan got to pet and feed and splash about with the dolphins. It was pretty great.

I remember when I was in the Galapagos and suddenly someone yelled that there was a school of dolphins on the side of our boat. (Is it a school?) Anyway, we all jumped off the boat – there was no island in site, and we swam along with the dolphins. I could hear them clicking and communicating underwater and I was really right next to them. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Now, I’ve been reading recently how dolphins are pretty cruel to each other. I guess it turns out that the bigger the brain, the crueler the species. Hmmm…

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