Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thou Dost Protest Muchly

Lately I've been reflecting on something. Kind of swishing it around in my brain. I have two children, ages 5 and 7 and sometimes they argue (OK, they argue quite a bit). I don't like to listen to it but lately I've heard the catchphrase "It's not fair!" repeated a lot. I felt this kind of "deja vu" feeling. Because I realized that I hear that phrase alot in my counselling office.

"It's not fair!" Whenever children (or adults start dropping this phrase), productive communication is just about done. The phrase drips with protest and a vague understanding of some universal but hidden (to the other person!) truth. When we suggest that something is not fair, what we are really meaning is "It's doesn't seem fair to me."

The problem is that fairness is totally subjective (subjectivity - judgment based on individual personal impressions and feelings and opinions rather than external facts ). By trying to label something as unfair, we attempt to show someone that the universal standard of "fair" has been broken and so we protest. But since fair is different for everyone, it almost never settles anything. We just argue over why my version of fair is truer then yours. Solutions rarely come out of such contests.

When we ask someone to submit themselves to our definition of fairness we are asking them to let go of their definition of fair and take on ours. That is why it is rarely successful (just come listen to my kids argue for awhile and you'll see this - or come listen to angry couples in therapy). And ven if we could all agree on what is fair, why must people act fairly? Or why must life be fair? Or even why must God be fair? Do you realize how crazy it is for us to expect other people/the world/God to be fair (by our unique definition)? It is madness, madness I say! People are flawed, so is the world, and God's definition of fairness is completely perfect and thus different then ours. Sure, it would be great if people/the world/God would treat us fairly (as we define it) but why must they? Is there a law written saying it ought to be so? Or were you promised such fairness at birth? I know I wasn't!

I think that we need to let go of using the word fair so easily. Like other unhelpful words ("must" and "should" come to mind) I am going to try pruning it from my vocabulary. I realize that the Bible does use the word fair a few times so I won't suggest getting rid of it completely, but few people seem to use it in a helpful way.

Here's a little test, the next time you hear someone fighting over something listen to hear if someone says "you're not being fair." And even if they don't say it out loud, they are probably thinking it. "You should be acting more fairly" (or something similar) is so often our silent argument that we ought to have it tattooed on our foreheads to save us time and energy! By focusing on how unfair things are, I have seen people become depressed, destroy their marriages, ruin their careers, and shipwreck their faith. This is very important: Life is not always fair. In fact, it can be very unfair. That's OK, with God's help and other's encouragement you can survive it. You can take it. And maybe, just maybe, even with all the unfairness you can still have a satisfying, enjoyable, and meaningful life. Go ahead, try and change what you can. But when you can't and life is unfair . . . accept your reality and move on.


Jay Boaz said...

Fairness has given me many a headache as a sports coach.

- If weaker players are given equal playing time with the stronger players, are you being unfair to the stronger players by potentially retarding their development (you get better by playing with stronger players)? Are you being fair to the team by limiting its chances of winning?

- If only the strongest players are played, is that fair to the weaker players who don't get as many chances to develop otherwise?

It goes on from there, but it has given me many a headache (and continues to do so).

Mark said...

Yes, I was thinking about teams and how "fairness" comes in there. When I was a drama team leader I found that people often questioned my fairness. I found it helped to just tell everyone how I was going to make my decisions as best as I could and remind them that it was my call to make and if they didn't agree they were free to not be on the team. But there were still bad feelings. Once you get it in your head that your leader "should do things more fairly" it's hard to get out. Good luck with your coaching Jay, let me know if you figure out a way to get rid of those fairness objections, I'd like to know!

Jay Boaz said...

Well, one way to try and "solve" the fairness debate in sports is make it clear from the get-go what the goal of the team is; is it a casual, just-for-fun team, or is the goal to be competitive and win.

For example, the goal of the soccer league Riverton is in is not to develop elite players, but to provide a venue for anyone to play soccer. As such, there is no debate about who should play because everyone plays. We don't really get the fairness debate in this league.

High school sports can be a whole other matter. Is the goal student participation, or for athletes to be given a chance to excel (which can have an impact on their University/College, in terms of sports scholarships)? It's tough right now because the province is really pushing for more physical activity in schools, but at the same time the athletes need a place to excel just as the "smart kids" excel in the classroom.

When in a situation like this, I like to discuss with the team what the expectations are, and let the team decide what approach they'd like to take. I'd like to say this works all the time, but while coaching girls volleyball in the past (after having a team discussion about the goals of the team and everyone agreeing to the objective) I still had girls running away crying because of court time (and I mean literally crying, I'm not trying to be mean or sarcastic here). Boys teams are a different story though; if the team agrees to be competitive and play the stronger players, nobody cries about it. I distinctly remember, as a player, being on a basketball team where all 10 of us asked our coach to bench the weaker players and play the stronger ones. The coach refused and played everyone equal, and I was upset about it. I was one of the weaker 5 asking to be benched.

Wow, this could have been a separate post on my blog! Probably get more readers here anyway. ;)