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Fairness is an important value of mine and the basic belief that life is fair has been a touchstone for me; a comfort when something doesn’t go my way or something bad happens to someone, that life will eventually balance that out with something good.

My husband and I recently had a discussion about it.  He doesn’t think life is fair at all and believes that bad things happen to good people all the time that don’t deserve it and it’s not always balanced with something good.  I initially found myself feeling sorry for him for having this point of view and defended as I always do the idea of karma; that over time things will balance out and good things will happen to good people and people who harm or hurt others will have it returned to them.

The discussion around fairness came up because I’d been feeling very angry about it.  My really high ranking value of fairness has been stepped on as of late especially with regards to what is happening in the world; from small things like people leaving their shopping carts in the middle of the parking lot at the grocery store or seeing people throw their garbage in parks or on the side of the road to bigger issues like watching self-serving people who are looking out for their own best interests, stepping on others and never seeming to have to face any real consequences; while others are losing their livelihoods, or their lives, or risking their safety in order to do their jobs or to help other people and the generation that will come after us live in a more fair world.  I see people valuing their ‘personal freedom’ over the greater good or the well-being of the people in their communities, all while justifying or pretending that they don’t see the people suffering around them or how their actions are negatively impacting others.  In fact, I see bad things happening to good people all the time.

In pursuit of closing the gap between what I believe and what I’ve been seeing in the world recently, I thought a lot about my beliefs around fairness and came to the realization that the world is definitely not a fair place and it is my holding on to the belief that life is fair that is actually causing me distress.  Here’s why:

The belief that the world is fair creates a transactional view of life – do good, get good, do bad, get bad, bad thing happens, good things are coming, good thing happens, bad things are coming – it keeps you small and keeping score.  It perhaps also motivates us to do good things not because it’s the right thing to do or sincere, but because we believe we will get something good in return begging the question, so is it really a good thing?

Believing that life is fair may be comforting but in a non-productive lazy way.  Banschick (2011) writes “whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Agnostic, many are reassured by the spiritual notion that ‘what goes around comes around.’ They reassure us that there is fairness in life that is not always visible.”[1] This motivates us to do nothing or at least nothing for now as we are waiting for someone else or perhaps some higher power to do something about it.  We are also hesitant to reach out to help or change things that we perceive to be unfair because who are we to mess with the fairness balance that exists in the world.

It creates apathy and a feeling that you’re not accountable for the state of the world. As Sherman (2018) writes “If something greater than you is reliably enforcing fairness, you don’t have to”.[2]  Perhaps we start unintentionally justifying why bad things happen to good people to try to make sense of the world and to make ourselves feel better/safer which is actually a very scary thing to do (all you have to do is turn on the news or look at horrific things that we have let happen in our human history).

We give people in our lives a pass when we know we shouldn’t.

Subconsciously it makes me think, if life is supposed to be fair and bad things are happening to good people, when will it get around to bad things happening to me. Or, it just makes me feel guilty for the good things in my life.

It also instills a low grade anxiety that when things are going particularly well, to be on the lookout for the inevitable bad thing that will happen to balance the score (otherwise known as ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’).

It took me a few days to process all of this but releasing myself from the belief that life is fair was cathartic and does this:

  • I feel completely exposed, like the rest of my fellow humans, to whatever unfair thing that may happen to me, my loved ones, or people in my community.
  • I feel released from the feeling of owing for good things that have happened in my life or being owed when things haven’t gone my way.
  • I don’t feel the need to keep score and stop feeling so angry when I feel that life is doing a bad job of keeping things fair for people.
  • I listen more closely to people’s stories with compassion and curiosity instead of perhaps subconsciously looking for the justification that ‘they must have done something to deserve that . . .’, ‘that’ being fill in the blank and let’s be honest about it; ‘losing their job’, ‘getting divorced’, ‘financial challenges’, ‘getting sick’, ‘being unhappy’, or any other number of hardships that we see people experiencing.
  • I let go of the need to play by the rules that I’ve imposed upon myself.
  • I can let go of mistakes that I’ve made or things that I haven’t handled perfectly that perhaps I’ve subconsciously been waiting to be penalized for (being a perfectionist by the way means that this is a whole lot of stuff).
  • I feel motivated and empowered to help make things more fair for myself, the people in my life and my larger community.

Fairness moves away from being a roll of the dice or an intangible thing in the air around me or something happening (or not happening), to a focused conscious action that I can take right in front of me to try to make things more fair through my choices and actions.  It is an ideal that I feel empowered to strive for.  I feel more motivated and free.

Don’t get me wrong, I still value fairness and still believe that if you do good work, good things will happen but not because it’s owed to you, but because of your consistent efforts.  The reverse is also true.  It’s simply about reframing Life being Unfair to something positive and feeling both accountable and empowered to help make what you can more fair (if that is important to you).  We all know the Edmund Burke quote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  I can honestly say that looking back, perhaps I haven’t been guilty of doing nothing, but I’ve definitely been guilty of not doing enough.  That changes today.

What are your beliefs around fairness?  How have they benefitted or not benefitted you?

[1] Banschick, M ‘It’s Not Fair! But why should it be?’, psychologytoday.com, October 17, 2011

[2] Sherman, J.E. ‘Is It Better to Believe that the Universe is Fair or Unfair?’, psychologytoday.com, April 25, 2018