Forget Fairness |

6 min read

“Ernie,” the friend called from his front door. “Don’t take the game!”

But Ernie was already halfway to the street, clutching the box. “It’s my game, and I’m going home!”

It was 1990, the year I graduated from high school. MTV Spring Break in Daytona was huge (that’s where I lived). It was “Hammer Time” on the radio, and it was the “Scattergories” commercial on TV.

His friends would not accept “neatness” as a “disease” in the game, so Ernie grabbed up his word game and held the fun hostage with his rigid expectations. His warped narrative of “fair.”

It’s easy to watch Ernie in the classic commercial (or someone in your actual life acting similarly) and think, “How ridiculous!” How often, though, have we burned and acted out of indignation for being passed over, rejected, not given the grade, promotion, kudos, final say, or a simple shout-out, thank you, or pat on the back we “deserve”?

Our fixations with fair can, especially in relationships, lead us astray.

The Battle of the Firmly Held Fictions

This post is not about the inequities—the imbalances in resources and access to opportunity—creating unfairness for entire swaths of society. Yes, these must be thoughtfully discussed and addressed. I’m writing to individuals, not societies. We all regularly fixate on an assumption that life doles out pleasure and pain in a “fair” manner. We cling to rigid mental assumptions as if there is a Grand Poobah of Karmic Consequation out there, keeping track and tasked with making things right—fair—if we only keep on keeping on with our indignance.

Thought experiment: How silly is it for the Easter Bunny to have a beef with the Tooth Fairy because that whimsical winged redemption center gets grateful attention from kids year-round? That cute, furry, long-eared friend only gets attention for a single day!

Or how about Hannukah Harry? How ridiculous would it be for him to resent Santa for getting billions spent in his name? “Wait! There is no Hannukah Harry,” you might be thinking… Well, you’d be right! Pause… think some more…

Here’s what I’ve seen as a psychotherapist practicing for more than 20 years: We believe fictions of comparison-laced expectations as adults in our parenting, professions, friendships, finances, you name it—we suffer needlessly as a result.

Forget Fairness

In a study of consumers’ preferences and valuing of products (such as chocolate), those marked with the “fair trade” designation (meaning suppliers of a product receive a world-market premium, ensuring a decent wage) were significantly more likely to be viewed by participants as better-tasting, even though there was no actual increase in product value. This “halo effect” has been repeatedly shown to impact consumer perceptions absent objective product differences.

Let me be frank. We need to forget (I sometimes use a starker f-word in my office) fair when it comes to the in-stone expectations we have, particularly those based on assumption and word-of-mouth fiction with no grounding in factual, measurable reality.

What do rigid assumptions of fairness in relationships with friends, family, coworkers, kids, and partners give you? More connection? Creative output? Resolution of conflict and bridging of gaps?

Again, it’s not that inequities of access and resources are not relevant. It’s our unwillingness to see our mind’s habits, far beyond grabbing up board games and storming out the door, that is the real culprit.

Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

At least, that’s what the quote I saw on Facebook (as I scrolled through other people’s manicured social media posts) indicated as a quote from President Teddy Roosevelt. Did I check actual non-Facebook history sources? No. I (like most of us) nodded in agreement to the sentiment and then went about my social comparison business on social media.

We relentlessly compare and either assess ourselves as coming up short or (briefly) far out ahead of the pack in some way. Yes (if he said it), President Roosevelt was right: We are better off not comparing ourselves to others because we further embed fairness illusions into our mental habits. We compare to others across time and apple-and-oranges circumstances.

Upstream from comparisons is the Wizard of Oz itself—thought, particularly “me” thoughts. The real thief of joy is not seeing that our thoughts are tools to be used, not who we are. You don’t believe you are the pen you used earlier today, right? It’s a tool. Why do you believe you are the thoughts (including the comparing and fairness assumptions) bouncing around in your mind? Why do you identify with them so much?

Relationships Essential Reads

Use thoughts to plan and create. Don’t let them use you. See the tool. Don’t be a tool!

Own Your Mind

In what I call “momentology,” you learn to own moments versus rigidly attempting (and failing) to control (or “possess”) outcomes, others, and circumstances. Own your thoughts of things being “unfair” (however you may be assuming them) by noticing them and be willing to speak your judgments, assumptions, unexamined party lines, and things you’ve parroted. If we’re willing to own what our minds barf up during the day, perhaps, co-creatively, we can cobble together something truly equitable in all sorts of moments.

Try This: “Opening the Fist ‘o Fairness”

Call to mind a recent situation that hit your “unfair” button.

1. Sit for a few cycles of breath with your eyes closed as you visualize the experience as vividly as possible.

2. On an inhale, hold your breath while simultaneously balling one of your hands into a tight fist. This is the feeling of “unfairness,” of being unjustly treated. Hold it for as long as possible as you notice how it feels to hold this tension, these stories of “unfairness,” so tightly.

3. On an exhale, release your fist into an open palm. This is the feeling of acceptance of things as they are. Thought stories may come and go, and yet notice how they may “land,” but if you don’t grip at them, they will move away on their own. How much can you receive with this sort of posture to the moment as it unfolds? How flexible might your responses to others be?

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