Friday, 17 October 2014

It's not fair!

One of the things that amazed me about my children was how quickly they developed a very strong sense of fairness.  Almost before they were able to talk they would look enviously at other children's toys or food and want their share. This seems like innate and not learned behaviour to me.  My husband and I do not spend all of our time arguing for a fair share of things - well not usually toys, but maybe whose turn it is to get out of a chore!  A sense of justice seems to lie as deeply in humans as our traditional five senses.   As my children have grown older this sense of fairness has led to many squabbles, but also to cooperation and sharing at other times.  A bit of Google searching brings up academic research showing that this sense of fairness is inherent in many other species too.

A few weeks ago I was drinking tea and eating cake on a Saturday afternoon with some friends, and one of them was talking about preparing for our church Sunday School session the next day. The story she was going to tell was Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard - where some workers were hired at the start of the day and agreed to work for the pay they were offered, but then others were hired at various points during the day to join the first shift. At the end of the day the manager paid everyone the same amount. The ones hired in the morning were not happy as it this did not seem fair to them. This scenario lies behind the huge upheaval in pay over the past few years in public sector organisations, where attempts have been made to equate jobs normally carried out by male workers, such as emptying bins, with jobs more usually taken by women like classroom assistance roles.  Most people agree that it is important to put this injustice right, but it only goes so far and puts a sticking plaster on an increasingly large problem. It doesn't seem to be fair to me that a city banker or footballer should earn orders of magnitudes more than a carer or teacher.

The Sunday School teacher friend of mine, who is a lawyer, was going to teach the children about the importance of being content with what we have been given and not always comparing ourselves with others. A content person tends to be much easier company than someone who is always complaining that life is not fair. One thing that always amazes me about Immy is how content she is, on the whole.  Sometimes she does complain about how hard things are for her compared with others, but normally she is happy to watch others succeed and prepared to accept that most things are harder for her than they are for other people. It's often me that's fighting against the injustice of it all, on her behalf. The old and new testament writings contain a range of messages on this subject, some focussing on the need to be content with one's lot in life, where others are more concerned with the fight for justice and freedom from oppression.

I was talking about the story again, with another friend who is not religious, a few days later.  We observed that when our husbands were away with work we tended to have a calmer atmosphere at home with fewer arguments about getting the children ready for school etc, and this is because we had to do it all and there was nobody in the other room to feel envious of, or competitive with. Tired yes, but not so grumpy!  I'm sure my husband finds the same thing when I am away.

Studies with animals have shown that in more stable and long-term social groups this sense of fairness is less pronounced, which makes sense really - and this is what we observe in our human societies too. It doesn't bode well that, by all accounts, we are one of the most unequal societies in the Western world, and becoming rapidly more so. It heightens a general sense of injustice and pits us all against our neighbours.

So I must learn from Immy's example and try to be grateful for, and content with, what I do have - and yet continue to fight for greater fairness in the world around me. Because I can do something about some of the things that are unfair. I can vote, I can do my research and campaigning and speak up whenever I get the chance.

But there is some unfairness which is extreme and impossible to rationalise or do anything to prevent.  This has struck me forcibly over the past fortnight. Three lovely friends have been landed unimaginably hard blows, completely out of the blue in each case. One has lost her husband suddenly, one has a child diagnosed with cancer and another has lost a baby grandchild unexpectedly.  I've been writing this blog post, but at this point I really have nothing more to say. It's just not fair.

So I guess my conclusion is that life is often deeply unfair and there's absolutely nothing to be done about it. Taking Imogen as an example, there's little point in dwelling on the unfairness of  being born with cerebral palsy and the numerous challenges this brings. There are other unfair things about her life, however, and the lives of other people, that I can fight to change. But on a personal level it is important for me to steer clear of being envious of others, and to balance my campaigning and fighting with some thankfulness and contentment.