The Fairness Myth
Recent events that have happened in my life have caused me to reflect on what I call the fairness myth in American culture. Americans live in a country where you can sue for almost anything, even ridiculous things like your coffee being too hot or your airline seat not being comfortable because you are too overweight. We, as a knee-jerk response, tend to blame someone else for our troubles and seek “getting what we deserve” before we take any responsibility or, god forbid, simply accept our misfortune. This has led to soaring healthcare costs because doctors must carry expensive malpractice insurance and taxpayer’s dollars wasted on court time for petty claims.
This is due in part to the fact that we Americans are people who push for what we want and are self-minded enough to demand it. I don’t mean that entirely as a bad thing for if we weren’t this way, the United States of America would have never come about. It was our very pushiness to express our own views that led to our ambitious journey to the new land that became our home. We founded the United States on these same views and although it has taken some time to be fully inclusive, first with women, then with blacks, recently with homosexuals (at least in many states) and soon hopefully with immigrants, it is our nature to push for our rights, what we feel we deserve, what is fair, that is our common culture.
Thus I, being American, when experiencing a situation that was truly unfair, ie., a moldy apartment that made me sick, pushed for what I thought I deserved. I am not someone who seeks financial gain at any cost and in general look to avoid a legal solution, but there was no question to me what happened was not fair given the circumstances. I like to consider myself cosmopolitan, educated and multicultural in my views but I soon realized that when faced with a stressful situation, I was reacting in a classically American way. Let me explain…
For example, in the same exact situation, a Hindu, would see it as simply a part of his karma. Perhaps he had a lesson to learn or some wrong to right but the question of what was fair or not would never enter into the equation. To broaden the view, someone living in the Third World deals with unfairness on a daily basis, so much so that the concept of fairness is obsolete. One pays for electricity but the power still goes out; the police stop you for no reason but go their merry way with a bribe; a crime goes unpunished because the criminal has high connections or the authorities accept it such as India’s struggle with rape; disaster aid goes into the pockets of politicians while those in need stay hungry. The examples could fill a library. Those living in the Third World know that there is no such thing as fairness, instead you try your best and accept what comes. In reality, although in America life is better, there is no fairness here either, it is just a cultural myth that it exists and we have grown accustomed to demanding it.
But wait, perhaps you don’t believe me and think that fairness, i.e., justice does exist in the United States? Look at the case of Trayvon Martin and tell me if what happened to him was fair…
So in my case I first reacted as an American: I was wronged and that wrong needed to be made right. I demanded compensation and the apartment owner responded with an objection that what I was asking for was in fact, not fair at all, that they were not responsible. I then countered this with more proof, more demands and a threat to pursue it legally. After that I had to wait for several days while I gave the apartment owner time to decide what they would do. In that time, a shift happened. I considered all the outcomes: 1) nothing more would be offered and then I would have to decide whether to fight it (or if I even could); 2) they would offer less than what I wanted; 3) they would meet my terms. While I considered it all, I found myself releasing my attachment to the outcome. I realized that no matter what, I would be okay, I would move on from this. I also realized how blessed we are as Americans, in general, because life here as a rule is much better, even if it isn’t about what is fair.
Seven years ago I experienced the same issue in an apartment I had in Santo Domingo. There was a major water filtration problem, the closet walls were damp and mold grew. I got sick, same as now. But in the Dominican Republic there was no recourse. No mold testing was done, no reimbursement — nothing. I had to save my money and leave. I had no choice. Even with no compensation in my current situation I was better off than I was 7 years ago. The apartment owner had moved me out of the affected apartment and was treating the mold. Life would get better. When I thought about it this way, I let go of what was fair and what I ‘deserved’ and thought about it more in terms of why this was happening, what this event meant in terms of my life path. I surrendered.
My last post explained the results, I got a fourth option, all my terms and then some. I have come to realize that the path is to move South, it seems very clear to me, and these events led me there. I no longer think about what is fair in the situation but rather remain open and grateful for where it has led me.
I think that if we Americans could culturally release ourselves from the myth of fairness and recognize that we are not in control, that what happens is really out of our hands, we be a more compassionate country. We should still push for justice and fairness but we need to let go of the results and embrace life as it comes. We tend to give ourselves credit for all we have but in reality some of it is luck, karma, divine intervention. There are plenty people who work hard yet never escape poverty. Yet Americans who do have money have a hard time believe that is true. We think that somehow the prosperous deserve more, are better, work harder or what not. We need to recognize that each has their own journey, challenges and their own experiences and that the fact that some have better experiences does not mean that they necessarily deserve it more. In my case I consider myself lucky, I will end up with a benefit after a difficult situation. But, if the result had been different, it would not mean that I was any less deserving.