An essay by Julie Kibler, author of Calling me Home
“Life’s Not Fair, or Every Cloud does NOT have a Silver Lining”
We sat in a church service months ago and learned that a 15-year-old girl in the congregation had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer. We did not know her personally, yet the news sobered my family. I suspect we collectively thought, “That’s so unfair.”
Nearly a year later, the young woman has been through months of surgery, recovery, and who knows how many kinds of treatment. She’s received positive report after positive report—the cancer is responding well to treatment, the cancer is gone, all is clear, it’s a miracle …
Then a month or so ago, we heard the news: The Cancer is Back.
I can’t begin to fathom how her parents, already so exhausted, or her sister, likely sad and angry and maybe even tired of having her own needs relegated to second place, absorbed the news. Outward appearances show a renewed fight against the giant now, positive attitudes, determination, and hearts grateful for the community’s outpouring of support. And yet. How do they go on? How can they watch other lovely teenage girls, ones with no cares in the world, and not cry out every second of every day, This is so unfair.
When I was growing up, my grandmother always seemed bitter and unhappy to me compared with my great aunts—her sisters. Several years ago, I learned that she had fallen in love with a black boy as a teenager in 1920s Kentucky. I believe he must have been her one true love. Things didn't go well for them. In learning this, I gained a new acceptance, years after her death, for this sometimes sad, sometimes angry, sometimes joyful grandmother. I became more gracious. I forgave her. Understanding what happened helped make sense for me, but I can’t imagine it ever made much sense for her. It wasn't fair.
Recently, a friend posted some bad news online. She and her husband had separated. Chronically ill, and the caretaker of their young child, she had no clue how she was going to manage. It. Was. Not. Fair.
Psychology 101 was one of my favorite freshman courses in college. The professor often entertained us with anecdotes from previous classes, from his private practice patients (unidentified, of course), or his family. The story I recall best was about a conversation he had with his young daughter.
“But Daddy, that’s not fair!” the child had said, responding to some inequity. Perhaps an argument had not been settled to her satisfaction, or perhaps her sibling had received a gift from a beloved relative and she hadn’t. Maybe her brother had one-on-one time with Daddy, and the child felt shorted.
“What is fair, really?” he asked. She couldn’t answer. “Guess what?” he said. “Maybe it's not fair, but the sooner you learn that life isn't fair, the happier you'll be.”
I think it took courage to teach his child this lesson so early in life. Of course, he shared this in the context of explaining that we might disagree with his grading methods, or believe our grade to be unfair compared with another student’s. “Guess what?” he said to us. “Life’s not fair. In this course, I make the rules and the decisions. I get to choose your grade.”
An A never felt so good. And the lesson stuck with me. More or less.
It has taken years for it to fully sink in—fully being a questionable adverb here. From time to time, a thought wiggles like a worm through the various holes in my brain, moaning in a creepy little voice, “That’s not fair.” Then the thought worm analyzes the injustice from every angle, instructing me how I can take action to right the wrong, make it balance out, take away from one person and give to another. Rarely is there reason to justify the time spent.
When my friend announced her separation, various iterations of the following sentiments, mixed with some practical advice, began to appear on our forum:
“Don’t worry. God never gives you more than you can handle.”
“Just pray and have faith. It’ll all work out.”
“It will make sense on the other side.”
“Every cloud has a silver lining.”
I felt compelled to message her privately. As a former single mother, I’d been through some really crappy, unfair situations myself. I thought I might be able to offer her, if nothing else, an open ear, a shoulder to punch, and at that moment, no platitudes. I wrote something like, “I think you’ll be okay, but I thought it might help if I just came right out and said, you know, sometimes God does give you more than you can handle. A lot more often than you’d think, he does. Sometimes it never makes sense, and sometimes things don’t work out well. ”
“I'm agnostic,” my newly single friend told me. “But in a weird sort of way, I appreciate your comment.”
Or maybe, I told my friend, if there is a God, he doesn't give us more than we can handle, but he allows it to happen, because we live in an imperfect, unfair world, one with free will—not one where an omnipotent hand micromanages even the tiniest movement and decision.
After all, imagine if everything was fair. What if all the platitudes were true? What would the world look like? Wouldn’t we still wonder what the purpose was? Would we wonder even more?
Sometimes life works out amazingly well on the other side of troubles—maybe better than we ever dreamed the first time around, no matter how hard it was to let old dreams go.
Sometimes things work out in ways that are not better—they just are.
Sometimes children die. Sometimes we’re separated from the ones we love, with no happy ending ever. We have illnesses that go uncured. Bad people succeed, and good people suffer. Sometimes there is no silver lining.
When life is painfully, inexplicably wrong, whether for me, or for someone like the young woman in our church, all anyone can do is sit, numb, sick to the stomach, scarcely able to process it. What could ever be just about a lovely, talented 15-year-old girl who should have the whole world at her fingertips being diagnosed with a disease that really and truly might take her life? What could ever make sense in that?
It’s true. Life is not fair.
And yet, we can’t quit. We can’t give up on life itself. We can’t sit forever, shifting the weight of events from one side of the scales to the other, back and forth, back and forth, trying to force everything to balance. We don’t have forever.
So, like the parents of this young girl, we get up and keep moving.
Like my grandmother, we get up and keep moving.
Like my friend, we get up and keep moving.
Because in all the messiness of a life that isn’t fair, there is a surprising rhythm. When I listen for it, it’s there.
“Dance, when you're broken open. Dance, if you've torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you're perfectly free.”
Julie Kibler began writing Calling Me Home after learning a bit of family lore: as a young woman, her grandmother fell in love with a young black man in an era and locale that made the relationship impossible. When not writing, she enjoys travel, independent films, music, photography, and corralling her teenagers and rescue dogs. She lives in Arlington, Texas. Calling Me Home is her debut.