Life and Fairness

Hola mi Gente,

It’s cold again today, but we really can’t complain, it’s been a mild winter here with very little, if any snow. Two-three months from now I’ll be whistling my way (hopefully) to my new job, watching the leaves make a comeback, my thoughts consumed with yet another promise of spring.

Now watch it set a record for snowstorms!  LOL

* * *


Motifs in Indian temples often use interconnected shaped and knots symbolizing karma and the link between all lives. Above is an interconnected motif in a Jain temple.

Life Ain’t Always Fair


[Note: some of the details of the following have been changed in order to respect anonymity]

Just the other day, I received a telephone call from someone who I had the pleasure of working with. She always calls me at east two-three times a year to say hello and tell me about what she has done and her life.

I first met her when I was a director for a reentry project several years ago and she had just been released after a ten-year prison sentence. Her crime? She beat her husband to within an inch of his life. Actually, as she put it, she thought he was dead and that’s the only reason she stopped beating on him. Her husband had systematically abused her for about fifteen years, almost from the time she had met him when she was a teenager. Throughout those years, she suffered broken bones, bruises, humiliation, and emotional and psychological abuse. In spite of the adversity, she managed to get a college degree and several good jobs in the financial sector (which she often had to leave because of her husband’s behavior).

Then one day she couldn’t take it anymore and she snapped. When she came to us, she was forty years of age, but she looked like she was twenty. She was very pretty, petite, soft-spoken, with intelligent eyes, and articulate. I often wondered how all that rage could have been contained in such a small form. She had been having a tough go at it, mostly because she could not find a job. This is the “collateral consequences” of incarceration: having to pay for your crime even after having served your sentence. Millions of people will never be able to vote, for example. That is also known as disenfranchisement.

She was crying one day in my office, trying to cope with the vicissitudes of life. She could not find suitable housing because she could not get a job. In a circular fashion, she could not find employment because she had a criminal record. Sometimes I simply sat with her and I often thought to myself that she was right. As far as I’m concerned, she should not have gone to prison in the first place.

People, mostly people ignorant of the term, like to use the word karma as if it means retribution. It does not. The historical Buddha called the workings of karma one of the “four unconjecturables.” We could drive ourselves crazy speculating on how it will play out, he said (Anguttara Nikaya 4.77). But I won’t get into karma today; I’ll leave that for some other day.

The fact remains that life is not always fair. Neither are people, ourselves included. Sometimes people take advantage of us. Sometimes we do all the right things and still wind up on the short end of the proverbial stick. Sometimes we are hurt though we may have acted cautiously. On the other hand, others may be generous to us and yet we take advantage of their kindness. Or we act with good intentions toward others and our efforts go unappreciated or misrepresented.

That life is unfair is perhaps a given. It is an aspect of life that challenges us to do the psychological work to grieve for the losses associated with unfairness. It also challenges us to do the spiritual work necessary so as not to become vindictive. Both of these together equal the unconditional acceptance to the unalterable fact that life, generally speaking, is not always fair: you win some, you lose some. And yes, I realize this all sounds mundane and banal…

It’s easy to be “spiritual,” forgiving, and wise when things are going right or when we are dealing with easy-going, caring people. Anyone, even an asshole, can do that. The real challenge is to meet our losses with an open heart, with a commitment to act and think compassionately toward others, especially when they test our patience or willfully hurt us.

Some people, lacking a full appreciation of self-love, mistake what I am saying. Being open and cultivating compassion when faced with cruelty does not mean we allow ourselves to become victims of abuse. It simply means we  allow ourselves to be what we are when we are most loving — vulnerable.

Any relationship can have deeply painful moments in it. A mature person knows that closing off and building walls is dangerous to their sensitivity and that remaining too open is dangerous to their boundaries. A psycho-spiritual maturity allows us to walk the middle path where a willingness to be open is tempered by a healthy maintenance of boundaries. We can seek amends when others treat us unfairly, ask for redress, and if that doesn’t work, we let go and our hearts do not close. Ultimately, letting go has the effect of opening the heart.

It is also a given that human beings seem to live with the default setting of retaliation. It takes a conscious effort to override this seemingly hard-wired setting. We have to customize our factory settings. Our ego’s favorite sport is retaliation, but if I accept you as you are without protest or blame, I am then not driven to get back at you as your judge and executioner.

My former client is one of the more powerful teachers of the reality of life’s unfairness. Though she has been abused by individuals, society, and its institutions, her heart remains open. At one point, working together we were able to take her out of a dangerous city shelter, and find a living arrangement with other women in a transitional home. And though she had no money, was unfairly stigmatized, and could not get a job, she would come to my office and accompany me to speaking engagements where she used her pain and suffering for the benefit of others and her life became infinitely richer because of it. Knowing what she had experienced, I don’t know if I would have had the spiritual dignity to act as she did, with an open heart.

I do know her example took away all my excuses and that was the power of the teaching she embodied. What about you? Have you built a fortress around your heart as a response to pain? Or do you remain open, knowing to live is to know pain? However, life can seem unfair and pain might be inevitable, but suffering is optional.

My Name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…


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