Life is not fair. Get used to it.
The average teenager uses the phrase “It’s not fair” 8.6 times a day. The kids got it from their parents, who said it so often they decided they must be the most idealistic generation ever. When those parents started hearing it from their own kids, they understood Rule 1.
Recognizing that life is not fair is a reality check. Hurricanes, tsunamis, plagues, earthquakes, and famines are not fair. Genetics is not fair. The good guys don’t always win. It’s not fair that some kids are taller, go through puberty early, or can eat gallons of Häagen Dazs without gaining a pound. It’s not fair that your average talentless D-list celebrity makes more money than all the math and science teachers in your school combined, and it’s not fair when the moronic suck-up gets the good job—but let’s not talk about Congress.
“Life is unfair,” author Edward Abbey observed. “And it’s not fair that life is unfair.”
You can’t control the unfairness of the world. What you can control is the way you react. How you respond will determine what kind of a person you will become. “Everything can be taken from a man,” wrote concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl, “but . . . the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”15
Usually, complaints about unfairness have nothing to do with justice, but are simply a reaction to finding out that you have to take responsibility for your life; that you are accountable for your actions; that your choices have consequences; that you have to work for money; that you have to fix something you broke; that you do not get rewards that others earned while you played video games. None of this is unfair.
Part of the problem is that so many young people know that they are special—they’ve been told so for years. They think that they deserve and are entitled to all sorts of self-actualization and perks that go with feeling so good about themselves. Some were under the impression that the “pursuit of happiness” meant that they were going to end up dating Jessica Alba, winning American Idol, and driving a Porsche. They will have to get used to disappointment.
In the meantime, when they don’t get everything they expected, it seems . . . so unfair.
But failing to get what you wanted is not unfair. Disappointment is a symptom of life, not a sign that the world is ripping you off. World hunger is unfair. AIDS is unfair. Not being able to go to the mall in your skanky T-shirt is not. Your share of the federal debt is unfair; having to turn off 50 Cent so other people in your house can sleep is not. So you have a choice: you can either join the chorus of the permanently whining or recognize that you have to take responsibility for your life and learn to deal with it.
Unfortunately, wrapping children in bubble wrap for much of their lives doesn’t really prepare them for coping with unfairness. Friends will let you down, good people will get sick, star athletes will blow out their knees, and jerks will win the lottery while a promising physicist at the very beginning of his career comes down with an incurable, crippling disease that destroys his chances for a normal life.
Stephen Hawking was not born in a wheelchair.16 The famous physicist was an active child, and even though he wasn’t good at ball games, he was able to take up rowing when he went to England’s Oxford University at the age of seventeen. He was one of the university’s most brilliant students—already recognized as a star—but in his third year at Oxford, Hawking began noticing that he was becoming increasingly clumsy, occasionally falling over for no reason.
Shortly after his twenty-first birthday he was referred to a specialist, who began a variety of medical tests to find out what was happening to Hawking. Doctors couldn’t tell him what he had, except that it wasn’t multiple sclerosis. They told him that he had an unusual disease, that he would get worse, and that they had no treatment.
“The realization that I had an incurable disease, that was likely to kill me in a few years, was a bit of a shock,” Hawking later wrote. “How could something like that happen to me? Why should I be cut off like this?”
How could life be so unfair?
But while he was in the hospital, Hawking saw a boy die of leukemia in the bed next to him. “Clearly,” he concluded, “there were people who were worse off than me. At least my condition didn’t make me feel sick. Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself I remember that boy.”
But it got worse. His physical condition deteriorated progressively. He had nightmares about being put to death, and others in which he sacrificed his life to save others.
“But I didn’t die” he wrote. “In fact, although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before.” Even as his condition declined, his scientific reputation began to grow and he became engaged to his future wife. “That engagement changed my life,” he remembered. “It gave me something to live for.”
After 1974, though, Hawking was no longer able to feed himself or get himself in and out of bed. Still, he managed to continue his scientific work.
But in 1985 Hawking suffered another blow. He contracted pneumonia, and in order to save his life, doctors had to perform a tracheotomy, an operation to open a direct airway through the neck, involving an incision in the trachea, or windpipe. Stephen Hawking, who had endured so much, and lost so much, now permanently lost the ability to speak, and required around-the-clock nursing care. He would have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, physically helpless.
For a while, the only way this brilliant scientist could communicate was by spelling out words one letter at a time by raising his eyebrows when someone pointed at a chart of letters. Eventually, he was able to use a small computer and speech synthesizer to communicate. He has used them to write a book, dozens of scientific papers, and even public speeches.
Hawking is now perhaps the world’s most famous physicist. He has three children, one grandchild, and twelve honorary degrees; is a fellow of The Royal Society and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; and has received many awards, medals, and prizes.
Asked what he felt about his disability and the tragic twists of his life, Hawking responded:
Not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many. [Emphasis added.]
Hawking does not complain that life is unfair. How do your problems stack up next to his?
Copyright 2007 by Charles J. Sykes. All rights reserved.