Life Isn't Fair (So What Now?)
My life (so far) of dealing with unfairness
Life isn't fair. That isn't a particularly unique insight. We have all heard that one practically from birth. But like all simple truths, it is an extremely profound insight that one can grapple with for a lifetime. I am increasingly convinced that much of the human experience is about struggling with the unfairness of life.
There are different ways that we humans can deal with the injustice that we see all around us, all of which I have tried at different points in my life. Like all kids, I spent my childhood largely focused on myself, so I tended to only think about injustice when bad things happened to me personally. On those rare occasions when I thought about all of the bad stuff happening in the world, I had my Catholic faith to help deal with that. Like a divine Santa Claus, God would keep track of people's good and bad deeds and give everyone what they deserved in the afterlife. With God righting all of the wrongs, I could continue to be a self-absorbed child and eventually teenager, taking comfort in the fact that those who occasionally mistreated me would pay someday.
It was in the early days of high school, however, that I began to think a bit more about the bad things happening in the outside world. There was a lot of stuff in the news about a horrible famine taking place in Eastern Africa, and I began to feel some legitimate anger and sadness for all of those people wasting away to nothing. This awareness of the suffering of these people and so many others around the world also became a coping mechanism for me. Given that I was pretty socially isolated at the time and feeling a lot of that stereotypical, middle-class white kid teenage angst, I could at least take comfort in the fact that I wasn't starving to death in Ethiopia. Also, I could pat myself on the back for being so socially aware and concerned about global injustice, unlike all the morons in my high school who were caught up in their petty little lives and problems. So I bought a single of "We are the World," watched much of "Live Aid," and gravitated toward music, literature, and television that was more sophisticated and socially conscious than those telling the same old generic love stories.
While the last couple years of high school were a definite improvement, I continued to get by somewhat on the realization that a lot of people in the world had it worse than I and that I was smarter and more socially aware than almost everyone else. By then, I felt just comfortable enough socially to make one of the scariest and best decisions I ever made: going off to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Given that I headed off without knowing a single person up there, it was both a terrifying and somewhat liberating opportunity to start from scratch, and for largely social reasons, I began attending some Christian meetings of various kinds. Since I was attending these meetings anyway, I figured that this was an excellent opportunity to examine the faith that I was raised in from birth. After some heavy reading and soul searching, I eventually decided to ditch my Catholic faith and be baptized as an evangelical Christian. I also made the equally radical decision of switching majors from Computer Science - and the future, "guaranteed," high paying job that would not require too much interaction with other annoying humans - to Social Science and a highly uncertain future career path. But that was ok. God would show me the way, and maybe someday, I could translate this new major into a career where I could do something to change the world.
After years of gradually realizing that the world could be a messed up place, the full extent to which the world was unfair hit me like a ton of bricks as I began to take a steady load of history, sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics classes. I was being hammered on a daily basis by injustices such as income inequality, civil war, corporate greed, environmental destruction, and a host of other problems. I was also struck by the extent to which the United States, a nation I had always felt proud of, contributed to some of this injustice. Also, at the same time that I was getting this education by fire, I was hanging out and getting to know lots of people in the campus Christian circles, with a lot of them being young idealistic people like I was becoming looking for ways to spread the gospel and make the world a better place. As time passed, I felt the call to be a missionary in a poor country someday.
In the summer of 1989, I decided that it was time to give the missionary thing a trial run, so I headed off to the West African nation of Liberia to spend the summer there working with other young aspiring missionaries from different colleges throughout the United States. While I knew on some level that it was going to be difficult, and to a certain degree I even wanted to suffer for Jesus, that summer ended up being far more than I bargained for. It turns out that I wasn't the devoted martyr that I thought I was, and the problems of this small African nation were far bigger than I could do much of anything about. The prevailing feeling during my time there was a profound sense of helplessness. And my strongest memory was of being a white American, standing out like a sore thumb, with a constant flow of strangers asking me to give them things: money, food, the shoes I was wearing, etc. By the end, I just wanted to go home and blend back in with the crowd.
Looking back, I realize what an insane thing I had done that summer. A few months after returning home, the Liberian government was toppled, the president was massacred in the streets, and the country fell into more than a decade of horrific civil war. At one point in the 1990s, Liberia was considered to be the worst nation to live on earth, which is really saying something. I imagine sometimes what might have happened if the civil war had started a few months earlier. I also wonder how many times I was foolishly putting myself at risk when I would take off on my own and hang out with some of the local people. Before leaving on that trip, there was a part of me that wanted to suffer and even die for my faith. At the end, I just wanted to go home. And every time I received a letter (for months after returning) from someone I had met describing how terrible things were and asking me for help, that sense of helplessness returned. While I was rich compared to the average Liberian, I had nowhere near the resources to do much to help in the face of such a disaster. And all the prayer in the world wasn't going to make a damn bit of difference.
Looking back, that summer in Liberia was probably the beginning of the end of my Christian faith. All of those years of "secular" courses in the social sciences also made it increasingly difficult for me to accept such a simplistic worldview with so little real evidence to back it up. I hung on for a couple more years due to guilt and because of all the friendships I had made in the Christian groups. But when I got my degree and headed back home to enter a teaching credential program at Cal State Long Beach, I started seriously considering the possibility that the basic tenets of Christianity were false. Maybe Jesus died a long time ago, there was no God that intervened in human affairs, and there is not a final judgment day. Sometimes evil people prosper, the relatively innocent suffer and die young, and nothing will ever be done to even the score. It's not like handing out rewards and punishments could ever wipe out the previous pain and suffering anyway.
For the first 25 or so years of my life, I had dealt with the world's unfairness in two ways, and one of them was fading away. I would either take comfort in the fact that there were people out there suffering more than me, or I would rest assured that God would fix everything when it was all said and done. But I am only now, in my early fifties, grappling with how it truly feels when those two crutches do not work any more. Taking comfort in the suffering of others has been a way for me to not acknowledge the painful emotions that can be traced way back to my youth. And while I stopped being a conventional Christian a long time ago, on a deep emotional level, I don't think I have ever (or likely will ever) completely give up on the possibility that there is a God, some gods, a divine force, or something supernatural that will judge the world someday. On an emotional level, belief in God is ingrained into me. To paraphrase a former Christian I once heard on the radio: if I decided to become an atheist, I would pray to God to help me. Belief in a divine judge is not necessarily a bad thing. The fear of hell can be a great motivator for doing what is right, and it is somehow comforting to think that someone like Hitler got what he had coming after he died, but where does one turn for moral motivation or comfort when he or she realizes that this world, and all of its clear injustices, is probably all that there is?
For most of the second half of my life, I have pretty much done what most of us humans do. In a sense, I have gone back to my childhood. I have primarily focused on the immediate tasks at hand, done my best to enjoy life whenever possible, and just generally tried to get by from day to day: teaching history classes, raising kids, playing sports, doing dishes, watching Lakers games, etc. With all of the stuff that I want and need to do on a daily basis, it is very easy to just get lost in my little bubble world. And at the moment, my bubble world is probably going better than it ever has. My family life is getting better as I figure out how this husbanding and parenting thing works. We are making more money than ever before while having plenty of time to pursue our hobbies. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and have a variety of people around all of the time. There really isn't much more that I could ask for.
But is this personal contentment enough? There was a time in my life that I wanted more than just this "American dream" kind of a life. I was going to be a missionary. I was going to go out and do something to alleviate the suffering of some of the overwhelming majority of humans who have lives far more difficult than a middle-class American like myself. I wasn't going to just sell out, sit back, and enjoy myself. It's tempting to look back at that young, idealistic version of myself as a naive kid driven by a combination of guilt and the fantasy that there was a God out there who would work through him to make the world a better place. But then again, there is something to be said for youthful idealism. But how do I confront an unjust world while both facing up to feelings that I kept buried for decades and being an (atheist-leaning) agnostic who believes that this messed up world will never be made right? Doesn't it make sense just to look inward, accept the inevitability of injustice, and just try to be as happy as possible with the time I have left?
Or maybe there is a middle ground. Maybe I can live a relatively safe and stable life as a middle class American and still play some part in making the world a better place. I have a job, after all, that I have never seen as just a job. Every semester, hundreds of students come through my classes, and if I keep doing my best to help them better understand the present through the knowledge of the past, some of them will likely make strides toward being wiser human beings. It is even conceivable that I will play a small part in helping many of them to go out and do far more than I ever have to make the world a better place.
While an atheistic worldview can lead a person to be self-centered and nihilistic, it can also be a great motivator for positive action. Life is a one-way trip for all of us, and no divine being is showing up someday to make all of the wrongs right. So instead of praying for some divine being to fix things and seeing this world as a hopelessly flawed place that will be ending in the not so distant future, we need to get out and work to ensure the prosperity of our species. Sure, I don't have as many tools as others to go out and change the world. Life is short, unfair, and the verdict is still out on how much longer our species might last. But a temporary life can still have meaning, and we don't need a God to tell us the right things to do.