Life Isn’t Fair–And Never Will Be: Bad Stuff, Good Stuff

Life isn’t fair and never will be.

Bad stuff happens to all kinds of people, including those who seem to do nothing but good in the world. Good stuff happens to all kinds of people, including those who seem to do nothing but harm.

And of course there are all kinds of variations and in-betweens.

“One of the mistakes many of us make,” stated Richard Carlson in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (1997), “is that we feel sorry for ourselves, or for others, thinking that life should be fair, or that someday it will be. It’s not and it won’t. When we make this mistake we tend to spend a lot of time wallowing and/or complaining about what’s wrong with life. ‘It’s not fair,’ we complain, not realizing that, perhaps, it was never intended to be’.”

Carlson, a highly sought-after therapist/author—a helper—died suddenly in his mid-40’s from a pulmonary embolism. An example of how unfair life—and death—can actually be.

Other examples of life being unfair involve some of the worst haters and harmers escaping punishment; ditto for some of us who’ve erred in lesser ways. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.”

A sizeable segment of our population, however, lean toward believing that “stuff happens for a reason.” Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian: “Because, if there’s no good explanation for why any specific person is suffering, it’s far harder to escape the frightening conclusion that it could easily be you next.”

As Burkeman points out, these folks are under the spell of the just-world hypothesis (or fallacy), aptly explained by Nicholas Hune-Brown, Hazlitt:

A belief in a fundamentally fair world—a place where you’re unlikely to be killed unless you’re a gang member, unlikely to go bankrupt unless you’re a fool, unlikely to be raped unless you’re ‘asking for it’—is a comfort. It’s a way of maintaining the vital illusion that we, the healthy and prosperous, are not just lucky, but somehow deserving. Everyone wants to live in a just world. If we hope to ever get there, step one will be overcoming the magical thinking that insists such a world already exists.

And magical thinking is often connected to both organized religion and the political right wing. Matthew Hutson, The Atlantic: “In a series of surveys, respondents’ religiosity correlated with belief in a just world, belief that capitalism is fair, social and economic conservatism, acceptance of income inequality, and belief in the fairness of the American social system.”

Belief in a just world and/or magical thinking also interconnects with an unfortunate tendency toward blaming the victim, notes psychology professor Sherry Hamby. As quoted by Kayleigh Roberts, The Atlantic: “It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them. There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.”

But belief, of course, does not equal truth—and wrongheaded beliefs can lead to harmful inaction in society. We fail, for example, to decrease our man-made inequities. “No, life’s not fair,” Hutson concludes. “And in a cruel twist, our wish to see it as fair keeps us from making it so.” 

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