Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


On Fairness

Before I say anything else, I want to make it very clear that this post has nothing to do with the one just below it. That post, which prophesies a resurrection of sorts, is related solely to my professional efforts. Significant events are underway in my author life, and I'm trying to get ahead of them as much as I can. You'll be hearing more about that over the next few months, so for now we'll leave the minor topic of my writing alone.

As for my nocturnal theatre life, Amanda and I are most of the way through a run of And Then There Were None at Lakewood Playhouse. I'm playing Doctor Armstrong; she's the prudish Mrs Emily Brent. It feels, frankly, like we've been doing the show for years, though it's only been four months (!). I wish I could say I've enjoyed it, but for the last two months it's been mostly a slog. Some of that was due to factors that couldn't be helped, some was the result of poor decisions I made in the heat of the moment--but primarily, the issue was my inability to leave my family life at home. As many of you know, my brother has been dealing with pancreatic cancer. His prognosis right now is exceptional, by which I mean he's the exception to a number of very grim rules. Over the last two months, however, there were times when that wasn't the case. He's made it clear that the ongoing details of his health are his own to withhold or divulge, and I'll honor that. I do feel comfortable saying, however, that his story has impacted my story. What's happened to my brother has proven enormously hard for me to deal with. It's affected my mood in ways I may not even fully grasp.

My brother Richard is truly a remarkable man. He's not yet 45, three years younger than me, but he's already the most successful person in the known history of our family. I mean, I guess that depends on how you define success, sure, but the way he defines it, he's the champ. He's the president of a state college in Georgia, he's been married to the same woman since they graduated from undergraduate college together, he has three degrees including a PhD, his two kids are doing well, he's shall-we-say financially comfortable, and he spent much of this summer training for a triathlon. Unfortunately, he was unable to act on that training, because he kept passing out from what he describes as the worst pain of his life. As we suspected, that pain was pancreatitis. What we didn't expect was the deeper illness his agony exposed, thereby saving his life. See, most people don't feel serious pain from pancreatic cancer till it's way too late. Richard went in for deep testing, and that's when the real roller coaster began.

Two weeks ago, his prognosis was dire. I traipsed through life knowing, simply knowing, that a bomb was about to drop on my family. Things would never be the same. And I can honestly tell you that the first, last, and most frequent thought that went through my mind each day was this: it isn't fair. It isn't fair! Richard's done nothing to deserve this and everything to avoid it. Meanwhile, I treat deep dish pizza like an FDA food group. I've been loading and unloading the same thirty extra pounds onto my body for decades, and I pack my life with enough unneeded stress to activate the San Andreas fault. So why him and not me? It ain't fair! There's no justice! What the hell, universe?

Fair, it seems, is one of the first words we learn, yet some of us never grasp the concept. When a toddler yells, "That's not fair!" what he or she means is, the universe isn't giving me what I want. The notion of actually deserving what we want seldom enters the discussion. And I know otherwise functional adults who never comprehend that before you get everything you want, you should actually have to do something extraordinary to get it. I know people who have been deeply unkind to other people, yet can't seem to fathom why the world at large hasn't been nicer to them. I suppose there are probably times when I've been one of those people. But hopefully, at least by middle age it begins to dawn on most of us that we have to atone for our sins and we have to work hard for what we get.

Except we don't. We all know people who make one brain-dead move after another, yet seem to float through life untouched by despair. Oh, and sometimes the universe drops a damn hammer on our heads. Molly Glynn, an actress on Chicago Fire who was, coincidentally, my age, was killed this month when a tree fell on her as she and her husband biked through the Erickson woods in suburban Chicago. "I couldn't save her. I couldn't save her. She's gone," her husband wrote hours later. It wasn't fair. Of course it wasn't fair. But see, this is one of the most difficult things we humans ever try to wrap our heads around. It's harder than quantum mechanics or learning Chinese. It's so hard that even when we do manage it, we immediately forget that awful lesson and have to learn it again over and over and over. We shake it from our minds and proceed through life clinging to our assumption that if we want (or wish to avoid) something badly enough, then the universe is obliged to comply. But that's a crock. Life isn't fair. The universe ain't a wish-fulfillment machine. If there is a God, He does, in fact, give each of us more than we can handle, and I mean all of us. That's a fact. It's obnoxious when people claim anything else, because God gives every one of us that bit at the end. We're mortal, my friends, and that's so completely intolerable to our psyches that we've crafted thousands of mythological structures in a vain attempt to ward it away.

So yeah, that is pretty dark. I agree. But it hit me one morning, during the worst of our family travails: an insight among the most profound of my life. It's so big I'm still processing it, weeks later, and I may never see my way around the breadth of it. My big realization was this...are you sitting down? It's a whopper! Are you ready? Here it comes...

The good news is...

No, I'm serious, a mind-blower's coming, so you really want to brace yourself. Okay? Here we go...

The good news is... isn't fair.

That's the good news. It is. Can you see why? Your not fair.

Has it hit you yet? No?

Life isn't fair. And that's the good news because every single one of us has made an unknowable number of stupid, at times even willful, malicious, mistakes. We've all been bad people. It's okay, we can say it. It's true. We've been morons, more often than we'd like to admit. We've betrayed those who loved us, talked smack about people who deserved open praise, lied to those with whom we cherish mutual trust, taken stupid life-threatening risks, deflected love, indulged in hate. We've made tactical errors that should've wrecked our careers for good, taken substances that were glorified poisons for brain cells, eaten foods no sane person would ever knowingly ingest, and pursued relationships our most clear-eyed friends warned us were toxic. At the age of eighteen, I climbed out onto the roof of a moving car, from which I leaped to the bed of a moving truck. I survived that puerile stunt, then smashed my head open minutes later when the truck hit a chuckhole and I went over the side. A few years later, I was working in the "clouds" forty feet over a stage, showing off for a pretty girl, when I missed a grab. If I had not made a second, desperate, flailing attempt, I'd have broken my fool neck and died just as sure as I'm sitting here to tell you about it now. There are universes, cosmologists suggest, in which I did fall that afternoon...

...and that, my friends, is what would've been fair. I deserved to get killed. In fact, it's reasonable to wonder if there haven't been dozen of times I avoided a well-earned demise. I've walked away from car crashes despite being a comically terrible driver, survived 104° fevers that had me hallucinating like a Biblical prophet, and taken falls that could've easily shattered my already-vulnerable spine. When I was twelve, doctors told me it was a sure bet I'd be in a wheelchair by now, because that's what happens to people with the skeletal birth defect they were certain I had. It turns out those competent doctors were wrong. I can walk and run now (if not dance), because life isn't fair. I avoided death hundreds of times because the universe does whatever the hell it wants. I've avoided living hells, not because I was wise enough to run for the hills, but because the other person dropped the ball so completely I had no choice but to slink away crying. Unlike my brother, I've never taken a shortcut to anything I wanted in life. He's the one with the superpower for minimizing steps, not me. I'm the brother who beats his head against reinforced walls, all while failing to notice the open door just around the corner. Yet my life is fine, even great more often than not, because despite all my foolishness and self-destructive behavior the universe simply isn't fair. As even Jesus noted, God's sun rises to shine on both the righteous and the cruel. You're here to read this because the cosmos was indifferent or looking the other way that time you cranked your car up to one-forty or dropped acid in a desert full of rattlers or ate gas-station food or smoked two packs a day for ten years. You have love in your life, no matter how many times you told truly awful jokes or made eyes at that waitress or pushed family away with both hands. And this is true because life isn't cause-and-effect, there ain't no justice, and love's a subjective phenomenon that endures despite all those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not to mention our own stupidity and meanness.

Life isn't fair. Your life isn't fair. Nor is mine, Gentle Reader, and that's the only thing that gives us a shot. You may say--many have--that Richard's recovery is a miracle. Or, you can be logical and say that what the universe actually gave Richard was cancer, and that the breaks which saved his life were a wonderful medical team, literally millions of person-hours of scientific research, and Richard's own forty-year crusade to stay in peak physical form. There's a case to be made for both views. But the bigger truth is, Richard didn't "deserve" to stay alive any more than Molly Glynn "deserved" to die. The concept of deserving has nothing to do with this, because "deserving" is mostly an empty, subjective, human construct. A king isn't royal by the grace of God, nor do family curses doom the sick or poor to abject suffering. Life is chaos. Even God has to answer to Luck, the most powerful deity in all space and time. Yet however we assess our decisions, good or bad, we owe everything we love to the implacable immensity of cosmic injustice.

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