Working with so many divorce cases over the years, I frequently hear about the concept of fairness. Complaints such as: "I can't believe that he's happy with that woman after ruining our family. It's not fair!" Or "I sweated bullets for every penny that we have. The courts don't care. They just gave her custody, separating me from my hard earned money. Talk about unfair!"
Indeed, we've all been taught since childhood that things in life should be fair. Children (my kids included) often complain to parents: it's not fair! It's usually because of some perceived injustice; whether it's their sibling finishing off the ice cream, or it's their parent, who refuses to let them stay up past bed time. We all carry a sense of justice and of being wronged in so many ways, yet does this sensibility really help us in the long run? I am not so sure.
While I applaud parents for teaching about fair play and support nations for making the attempt to create a fairer and more level playing field, there are times that I think that the word "fair" is just another nasty four letter word. There is hurt in the notion of fair. Sometimes there is value in holding onto a sense of justice (that your world should be fair) and sometimes you must be adult enough to give it up.
As adults our sense of fairness gets offended when we perceive the way people in power seem to get away with things that we normal citizens would be held accountable for. The world has always been unfair, so why should anything be different now? Why should some people be born into money while others are born into poverty? Why should some people be healthier, or prettier or more charismatic than others? The world has never been fair. But we want better. We want to impose a sense of justice on this unjust world, and this can be the noblest of under takings. For instance, during these times of economic anguish, it irks us when some in the finance industry seem to have gotten away with what we perceive as corruption. "They helped to cause our problems, we bailed them out, and now they take home big bonuses? It is not fair." This sense of injustice can be seen today in the "Occupy Wall Street" protests stirring up around the world, in some nascent attempt to address a belief that our economic system is fundamentally unfair.
I am sure that these protesters are on to something. But it is not new, not by a long shot. In divorce, so much is unfair. You can be married for twenty years, and then all of a sudden your wife no longer wants a future with you. "What did I do?" You may ask. She replies that, "you just don't get it" and she then goes on to tell you that she "deserves" some happiness. Why didn't she tell you ten years ago, so you could at least have started a new life at forty rather than at fifty? Not fair. And what of the fact that some people blow up families and marriages and are indeed happier than before. Maybe the kids get along with their father's new girlfriend more than they do with you. Also, not fair. But there is no one to protest to, and few courts that will make things right again.
From what I've seen in life, the world is often unfair, at least from a human point of view. We have our religious traditions, like Christianity with its faith in existence of heaven and hell. Or, Judaism, a religion that believes in a God of justice. And, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Agnostic, many are reassured by the spiritual notion that "what goes around comes around." These beliefs reinforce our sense that things make sense, even when they don't. They reassure us that there is fairness in life that is not always visible. From my point of view, these ideas are suspiciously gratifying. So suspicious, that I tend to see them as ways to feel less wronged in a world that provides plenty of hurt.
Other people believe that they will find justice in the court system. And, courts do sometimes give fair outcomes, but the justice system is managed by people and is therefore fraught with human imperfection. It's the best system we have right now, but fair is not a word that I would liberally apply to this institution.
The real problem is that when things don't work out in a way that is "fair" unhappy people can feel desperately bitter—holding onto their hurt and anger for years. We all know folks who somehow never get over their hurt, whether it's from a divorce or from another injustice. They seem to hold onto to their injuries as a badge of their victimization.
Consider this. Even if you've been badly treated, as in a terrible marriage, an abuse situation or a financial scandal, holding on to your outrage forever defines you by that hurt and not by the blessing of whatever time you have left on this planet going forward. Even if you are unfortunate enough to be dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you are not the hurt that you suffered, and should not be identified as such. You are a living being with dignity and a life of value. Even with a biologically based PTSD, remember that you are a person suffering from PTSD and not just a diagnosis. Not everything that happens in life is good, but there is a way forward. You have to grieve your loss (which may be financial, physical or perhaps the loss of your innocence) to the best of your ability, deal with reality and embrace life. Fair can be an unfortunate four letter word; a way to get stuck in the past, to the detriment of everyone around you.
Indeed, even our great traditions are not satisfied with a simplistic view of right and wrong: who gets punished and who gets rewarded. You may have heard of the canonized Books of Job and Ecclesiastes, which are ancient texts that deal with the problematic nature of justice in this world. Scratch the surface of a religion, get away from the children's stories, and sometimes you can find a wisdom that is a source of its greatness.
In Job, this righteous man has everything taken from him, almost on a whim. According to the text, Satan wages with God that Job can be dissuaded from his faith if only God removes all his blessings and provides him with hardship. God agrees to the bet and Job loses his wife, children, wealth and health. He is reduced to a shadow of himself, and in his grief, Job does not know what to do.
Job's so called friends pull out all the ecclesiastical stops. They try to convince Job that he must have done something terribly wrong to justify losing his family and fortune. After all, God is fair, isn't He? It's clear that these 'friends' are desperate themselves to have a simple answer to Jobs' suffering. (This is religion at its worst.) But, Job defends himself and won't accept a simplistic view of right and wrong—and the text agrees. Finally, Job gets his moment to confront God—and he is summarily corrected.
In this ancient book of theology (which is as modern as can be), God does not defend what happened to Job in terms of a 'right and wrong' that we normally understand. He puts Job into his place. "Were you around when I laid the foundations of the world?" The answer of course is no. Real justice, with its calculus of right and wrong is only understood by God. On earth, fair is not a sure bet.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the author (attributed to King Solomon) is the wisest of men who tells us that life just happens and that even he with all his learning cannot fathom it. "I said to myself, 'Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.' Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind."
This is a wisdom tradition that makes sense to me. Is there ultimate fairness, on a micro basis, involving two people who have hurt each other? No, here fair is hard to come by. But healing, learning and becoming stronger because of what you have gone through is possible. That is a religion I believe in; one of human insight and dignity that is committed to making a better future from the broken pieces of the past.
I am not arguing for letting go and having your ex-spouse walk all over you or your children. There is a place to set limits and fight for what is right. Just be careful not to get lost in your righteousness. You can easily lose perspective and fight when it's no longer productive—or poison your children with your bitterness. Be careful. Protect yourself, but be pragmatic. The notion of "fair" is seductive and has cost many divorcees unnecessary years of pain - with injured children and depleted bank accounts to show for it.
The message to impart here is that it's so much easier to deal effectively with being wronged when you come to terms with the apparent lack of fairness in life. You can believe that there is a greater sense of justice in this world. That is fine, but you may be disappointed. You can believe that the courts have been set up to protect you and provide justice. That is fine too, as long as you also understand that the 'justice system' can sometimes be quite unfair.
Bottom line: just know that dwelling on all that is unfair will inevitably deepen your hurt or anger and interfere with the grieving that you need to do in order to live a more vital future. Whether you come to it yourself, or you need the assistance of a therapist, a pastor, a rabbi or a priest, work on the belief that living your life with dignity going forward will reward you and your children.
This is about as fair as it gets.
© Mark R Banschick, MD
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)
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The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)
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