Pops dropped that argument A-bomb pretty regularly when I challenged rules or threw fits because I didn’t like his answers. “That’s not fair!” “Your reasons don’t make sense!”
They didn’t have to. He was my dad. I lived in his house. He was legally and financially (and in all ways) responsible for me. As much as I didn’t always like it, what he said went.
I hated that response. It really wasn’t fair! It infuriated my adolescent brain, and I railed against the injustice (ok, I wrote a poem about “my dad, the ogre” in my journal and sulked in my room).
Fast forward to that day in graduate school when, after learning all about child development and behavior management, I called my dad to tell him he was right. Life isn’t always fair, and he didn’t owe me a justification. In fact, he did me a service by helping me learn to deal with perceived unfairness. He still likes to bring it up.
In my clinical psychology practice, I frequently work with kids who “get stuck.” They meltdown and are unable to let it go when things are unfair, not right, or don’t turn out the way they expect. These are not “bad” or spoiled kids. Most have an anxiety disorder, and their brains may work a bit differently. Their thinking gets very rigid at times, and their emotions take over. The real problem is that their expectations are set in concrete, and they have to work really hard to learn to be more cognitively flexible.
Here’s how I explain it to them: Imagine that you’re walking down the street, heading to a place you really want to go. All of a sudden, you fall into a giant hole. You really have your heart set on getting to that place, which is ahead of you, so you keep walking in that direction, repeatedly running into the wall now in front of you. If you keep doing that, you are literally just banging your head against a wall. That’s not getting you anywhere! And if you sit down and give up, you’re just stuck in a hole. That’s also not getting you anywhere. Sometimes you have to stop, take a look around and figure out a new plan. Maybe if you look behind you, there’s a ladder or a rope, some way to get out of the metaphorical hole. You won’t see it, though, if you’re stuck.
I teach them how to think more flexibly: Is this a paper cut or a nuclear disaster? What’s another way to look at the situation? What are your ACTUAL choices? (I’d like someone to walk up and give me a million dollars so I don’t have to worry about money anymore, but that’s not a realistic option. The choices in front of me are work to make money or don’t work and have no money. Spending my time and energy lamenting the fact that someone isn’t giving me a fat stack of cash is a waste.)
Kids with anxiety disorders aren’t the only ones who have to work to get unstuck. Many adults (with or without anxiety) get stuck at different times and in different ways.
About five years ago, I found myself seated at a friend’s poker table for a friendly game of Texas Hold ‘Em. I know the basic rules of the game, but I’m no shark. The buy in was low, and I was fully prepared to part with my chips. Since I didn’t know the conventions of betting—when you’re “supposed” to fold or raise based on what’s showing and what’s in your hand—I figured it was more fun to play than fold, so I did…with something like a pocket 2 and 7 (which is, apparently, one of the worst hands to get). I won that hand, and my friend flipped! “YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO PLAY THAT HAND! EVERYBODY KNOWS YOU FOLD WITH THAT HAND!” Well, good sir. I played the hand I was dealt, and I played it well.
Why Aren’t Things Fair?
During our last election season, I, like so many people, decided to get into a heated debate with someone who lives on the complete opposite side of the sociopolitical spectrum from me. I was initially very frustrated during our discussion about some polarizing issue and our very different views on appropriate solutions when, in response to one of my undoubtedly solid arguments, he made the comment:
“The world doesn’t owe you anything.”
That was a pause moment for me. An opportunity to stop and really examine some of my deeply held beliefs and assumptions, the filters through which I view and interpret the world.
It turns out, I agree. The world doesn’t owe you anything. There are, what I believe to be, some basic human rights: that we all deserve to be treated with respect and to have the same freedoms regardless of race, gender, sexuality, wealth, disability, attitude towards dogs, whatever. The opportunity cards we are dealt, though—when and where we’re born, our parents, genes, socioeconomic status, etc.—are not guaranteed. Many people have more or fewer or better or worse opportunities than average simply by virtue of luck. There are some very real hardships and obstacles that some people have to face and overcome to reach the same starting point as others. It’s not fair.
“There is no fair. Play the hand you were dealt to the best of your ability.” Naval Ravikant in Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors
Life is not fair, and the world does not owe me anything. What an awful way to move through life…or is it? I began to chew on these ideas. What would happen if I let go of the expectation that life should be fair or easy? Would that change my attitude and emotions? My experiences? Would it drive different choices or lead to different behaviors? What I initially heard as disheartening became empowering. I am in charge of my life. I CAN make things different. I don’t have to be a victim of circumstance or past experiences or an uncertain future. I can learn and grow and cultivate the experiences I want to have. I can challenge my own assumptions and those of others. I can play my cards any way I want to.
When I stopped driving three years ago (due to a worsening visual impairment), I was in a pretty dark place mentally. It felt like I was losing my independence. I was overwhelmed with the uncertainty of my situation. How bad will my vision get? Will I be able to support myself? Handle day-to-day stuff like grocery shopping? Travel? Have a social life? Will people even want to be my friend? I won’t lie. I spent a lot of time wallowing in fear, grief, and self-pity and watching Netflix to distract.
At some point, I got tired of feeling stuck. I have a pretty unique knowledge base and skill set thanks to my profession. It was high time I started acting like it.
Then along came the final nudge I needed: a Facebook meme that changed my life.
I was stuck, and I was definitely sitting on it. I wanted answers to unanswerable questions. I wanted 20/20 vision. I wanted to be happy. The first two weren’t options on my table. Continuing to dwell on them wasn’t doing anything for me.
Happiness, however, was a different story. I believed—and still do—that happiness is not entirely (or even mostly) dependent on external circumstances—what you have or don’t have. I can’t change my vision (at least not yet. Come on, retina researchers, work your magic!), but I have more power and control over my life experiences than I realized three years ago. I stopped banging my head against the wall and began to look around. You know what I started to find? Ways to be happy despite a disability. More and more things that I CAN do, that I CAN control.
I have come a long way in accepting my situation. Acceptance doesn’t mean that I like it, that I agree with it, that I would choose it if I could (believe me, I’d rather have 20/20. I’m not in a place to genuinely say that I’m glad that I have vision loss, that it’s made me who I am. Maybe I’ll get there, but I’m pretty sure I’d still be cool with perfect peepers). It does mean acknowledging the reality of the situation, including what aspects are and aren’t under my control, and choosing to let go of the unhelpful stuff that either won’t make any meaningful difference or will actually only bring me down.
Wrapping It Up
So when you find yourself stuck in an unfair situation, pause, take a breath, and look around. What do you actually have control over? Your attitude. Your thought process. Your actions. Those underlying expectations. All of those ARE within your control…you just might not like it. “I shouldn’t have to do the work to let it go. It’s not fair!” You’re right. It isn’t. Now what?
Take responsibility for the things you can change. Stop blaming others. Accept the things you can’t change and find a work-around. “There is no fair. Play the hand you were dealt to the best of your ability.” Who knows, you might even win.
Originally published at www.ablindquest.com