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22 Jul

Life and fairness – Considering how low my own personal suffering ranks on the scale of world suffering—maybe a 2 out of 10 at best (or worst, depending on how you look at it)—I must admit that I am slightly embarrassed to be writing this entry. Recent events, however, have prompted me to disregard any embarrassment and just write what I feel.

“When we think about fairness, we tend to think ... only in terms of ourselves and those around us.”

Not too long ago, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with uterine cancer. You can read about this at length in my last entry, if you are so inclined, but the long and short of it is that her surgery on Wednesday was successful, the doctors were able to remove all of the cancer, and my mother-in-law is now recovering very well. We still don’t know if she will need post-surgery treatment, but the hard part is now behind us. I was still in a state of shock when I wrote my last entry, but I feel much better now.

Obviously, the past couple of weeks have not been very much fun. In addition to worrying about my mother-in-law (not to mention my wife and the rest of her family), we also had to cancel a trip we were planning to take to the States to see family and friends. I didn’t write too much about that in my last entry because a) it was not really the foremost problem on my mind at the time and b) I felt terribly guilty about thinking about the trip given the current situation. To tell the truth, though, I was very bummed about not being able to go. It’s been a year and a half since our last trip (which I realize isn’t really all that long in the greater scheme of things), and we had been planning this one since the beginning of the year. So hearing that my mother-in-law had cancer was kind of a double whammy.

I was quite depressed for a while. We all have our ways of dealing with depression—things we do to make ourselves feel better. Some people buy things to make themselves feel better. I’m not really a shopper, though. I don’t know what it is, but shopping drains my energy like a vampire on crack. My legs turn to jelly and I start feeling faint. My wife thinks I do this on purpose so she won’t take me clothes shopping with her. Maybe I do, unconsciously. After all, it is usually only clothes shopping that affects me this way. I could spend all day in a bookstore or computer store. Still, shopping has never been a remedy for the blues for me.

A lot of people take comfort in food, but I’m not one of them. In fact, I don’t think I actually understood what the term “comfort food” meant until relatively recently. I don’t have comfort foods. Don’t get me wrong—I love to eat. I like good food, and I like trying new types of food. I’m rail thin simply because of the amount of food that I eat (i.e., not too much), not the quality. People take one look at me and assume that I don’t like to eat, but it’s not true. I just don’t like to eat a lot, that’s all.

I suppose one of the reasons that I am still thin is that I don’t take comfort in food. If I ate a gallon of ice cream every time I got depressed, I’d probably be dead of lactose poisoning by now (I don’t know if there is such a thing as lactose poisoning, but it sounds probable enough). I’m not really sure how to explain this, but, while eating does in fact make me feel better (both physically and mentally), I do not attach the same reward value to food that some people do. When I get depressed, in fact, I am more likely to avoid eating because of some weird association in my brain that connects a lack of food to punishment rather than an abundance of food to reward. I really have no idea why this is, seeing that my parents never withheld food from me when I was young (or did they, and am I just suppressing the memory? Hmm...), and even if they had, why would I inflict more punishment on myself when I’m already suffering?

Actually, now that I think about it, it probably has less to do with some weird association for food and more to do with my self-esteem. Maybe I do associate food with reward (which would make sense—even though associating a lack of food with punishment is not necessarily the same thing as associating an abundance of food with reward, it’s not far off), but I’m actually a masochist, and when I get depressed I would rather punish myself than try to make myself feel better.

Sorry, tangent. Moving on. I may not have comfort foods, but I do take comfort in other things. Sometimes I play computer games in an attempt to make myself feel better (I’ve played an insane amount of Civ3 over the past couple of weeks), but I find that I actually feel worse when I finish playing the game. When used to make me feel better, computer games are self-destructive. There is one pastime that I can turn to, though, that seems to have no negative side effects: books. That’s right, I have comfort books.

My taste in books is rather varied, ranging from fantasy, techno-thriller, spy, sci-fi, and other popular modern genres to classics. I also enjoy reading academics texts—anthropology books in particular, but I’ve been known to delve into linguistics books as well. When it comes to comfort books, though, the list shortens considerably. Douglas Adams is always a safe bet when I’m feeling down, to give one example. This time around, though, I chose a different book: The Princess Bride. One reason is that we have the film on DVD, and my wife and I had just watched it a few days before, so the story was on my mind.

If you are a fan of the film and have not read the book, please do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. I saw the film first and read the book later, and it was only after reading the book that I realized how excellent an adaptation the film was. No matter how great the film was, though, it can only convey so much of the book’s essence. The film is faithful to the book where it counts, and when it does stray it is so well put together that you would never guess it was based on a book. But if you want the full effect you really need to read the book.

One of the interesting things about the book is that it’s not just a straightforward fairy tale. The conceit of the grandfather reading the story to his bedridden grandson is taken straight from the book. The interesting thing about it is that Goldman (the author) claims that The Princess Bride is an actual book written by an actual person (Simon Morgenstern) who was actually from Florin. The film does not pretend that Florin and Guilder are real places, but allows the viewer to think that they are part of a fictional setting. Goldman, on the other hand, claims that Morgenstern is writing historical fiction, and that Florin and Guilder were two European countries that were “set between where Sweden and Germany would eventually settle” (which would put them in Denmark, incidentally).

The whole idea is that Goldman’s father had read the book to him as a child, and he bought his own son a copy of the book for his tenth birthday. When his son failed to get past the first chapter, he opened up the book to discover that Morgenstern had not written the tale of adventure he remembers his father reading, but a “satiric history of his country and the decline of the monarchy in Western civilization.” So he sets out to abridge the book, taking out what his father had skipped over in his reading and leaving us with the “good parts” version.

I suppose one could ask: why did Goldman go through all the trouble of inventing a fictional work to abridge when he could have just told the story? Well, for one, the book (like the film) is very tongue-in-cheek, and to write a plain old, tongue-in-cheek fairy tale might have been just too clever (and we know just how evil cleverness can be). Through metafiction, Goldman creates an artificial distance between himself and the work, making it possible for him to comment on his own writing and take shots at the various people in life that annoy him, such as movie producers, academics, his wife, etc. Then again, the element of fiction (falsehood, if you will) in parts of the scaffolding set up around the story makes the reader question the validity of the whole—très post modern, non?

OK, I know that may sound like rabid lit major rambling, but I do have a point. I’m just taking my time in getting to it. As I mentioned above, the metafictional scaffolding allows Goldman to comment on the work, and it allows him to say things with his story that he would not have been able to say in a straight “fairy tale.” The book does indeed have a message, but it’s not what you might think if you’ve only ever seen the film. Most of the good quotes from the book are fortunately preserved in the film, and the quote that I think best encapsulates the message of the book is when the Man in Black says to Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something” (this quote is uttered by Fezzik’s mother to Fezzik in the book). The book ends with an “editorial note” in which Goldman offers his “analysis” of Morgenstern’s “ending” (gah, that’s the problem with metafiction and winking at the reader—too many scare quotes). This is from the last paragraph:

...I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.

I read The Princess Bride because it is a genuinely funny book, and it does indeed pick me up when I’m feeling down, but this time around it also served to get me thinking about life. Why did my mother-in-law have to get cancer? Why did we have to miss our trip this summer? The simple answer to these questions was right there in front of me: life isn’t fair. Not that I didn’t already know this, but it made me feel better to hear it again, believe it or not.

When I was talking to my mother about this, I quoted a clipped version of Romans 8:28 (“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” - KJV). I didn’t realize this until later, but what I was really saying was that everything would work out in the end, and I was using the Bible to justify this belief. Yet nowhere in the Bible does it say that life is fair. In fact, the Bible says time and time again that life is not fair. Jesus said, speaking of God, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). How is this fair? If life were fair, the evil would suffer and the good would prosper.

Matthew 20 begins with a parable in which the owner of a vineyard went out to hire laborers to work for him. He went out at four different times during the day to hire laborers, but when it came time to pay their wages, the owner paid all of them one denarius, whether they had worked all day or only one hour. Those who had worked the longest complained, saying, “You have made them (those who worked only one hour) equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” The owner replied, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Of course, it was after I reread this parable and started thinking more about life and fairness that I realized I was looking at things the wrong way. What does it mean to be fair? According to Merriam-Webster, it means to be “marked by impartiality and honesty; free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.” Maybe life is fair after all. Matthew 5:45 would seem to be the very epitome of fairness, as God is completely impartial in granting the blessings of nature. In Matthew 20, the first thing the owner says is that he is not being unfair. One could say that he is being partial to the laborers who only worked for one hour, but on the other hand all the laborers agreed to work for a denarius.

Perhaps the problem lies not in the unfairness of the world but in our definition of fairness. Let’s take the world of sports for example. A football match is considered fair if the referee is impartial, favoring neither one side nor the other. Even if the referee is doing his best to be impartial, though, you can be sure that one side (usually the losing side) will bemoan the injustice and unfairness of it all. But what they really mean is that things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped.

I’d like to call this version of fairness “Jedi fairness.” I know that’s a bit geeky, but bear with me here. If you are human and have not been hiding out in a cave on a South Pacific Island because you mistakenly believe the Second World War has not yet ended, you have seen the latest Star Wars films (also known as “The Trilogy that Destroyed a Generation of Childhood Memories”). The focus is on Anakin Skywalker’s journey to the Dark Side and his transformation into the feared Darth Vader. In the first film, a prophesy of “one who will bring balance to the Force” is bandied about when referring to the gifted but troubled young boy.

One of the (many) things that never really convinced me in the trilogy was the Jedi’s complete failure to comprehend the meaning of the word “balance.” You would think that at least Yoda would have realized what that meant, maybe saying something like, “Not good for us, this balance is.” The fact is that the balance of the Force was very much in the Jedi’s favor at that time. There were two Sith, but there were countless Jedi, and they were the most powerful organization in the universe. Yet how did things stand when Palpatine had carried out his plans? Two Sith (Palpatine and Anakin) and two Jedi (Yoda and Obi-wan). Any kindergartener can tell you that that’s balanced.

The Jedi, though, were oblivious to this. Apparently they interpreted “balance” to mean “the end of the Sith.” In other words, they interpreted it to mean “good for the Jedi.” That’s the same way I think a lot of us see fairness. When things go our way, you don’t hear anyone complaining about fairness. But as soon as something doesn’t go our way—no fair! Someone ate the last piece of chocolate cake before you even had one? No fair! You stubbed your toe and had to withdraw from the tap dancing finals? No fair! For the first time in recorded history, your dog actually did eat your homework, yet your teacher doesn’t believe you and gave you detention? No fair! We gnash our teeth and wail to the heavens for justice, fairness, and impartiality, when in fact that’s what we’ve had all along.

Life is impartial. It doesn’t sit around trying to decide whom to strike with cancer. These things just happen. My mother-in-law getting cancer was perhaps the starkest reminder of just how fair life is. Cancer, like most other diseases and calamities, does not play favorites.

When I was in university, a friend of mine had an interesting theory about luck. The first law of thermodynamics talks about the conservation of energy in a closed system. My friend’s theory was that the world was a closed system, not in terms of energy, but in terms of luck. That is, if he was having a particularly unlucky day, he could take comfort in the fact that either someone out there was having a fantastically lucky day or everyone in the world was slightly luckier, thus preserving the balance of luck. Conversely, when he was having a really lucky day, he was brought back down to earth with the knowledge that others were suffering because of his good fortune.

The theory was only half-serious, of course, but it’s not completely unsound. At the very least, it encourages a macroscopic way of thinking, as opposed to a microscopic way of thinking. When we think about fairness, we tend to think microscopically—that is, we think only in terms of ourselves and those around us. On a microscopic level, life indeed seems unfair and impartial. Some people seem to experience all the bad things, while other seem to experience all the good things. If we look at things as a whole, though, the impartiality of life becomes clearer.

Taking a macroscopic view of the world should also put into perspective where we stand in the balance of fairness. If you are reading this, then you have access to a computer, and that right there puts you ahead of many (if not most) people in the world, even if you don’t actually own the computer you are using. If you do own the computer, well, you’re even higher up in the balance.

Let’s take my own situation. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and I was unable to see my family and friends this summer. For the first few days I was convinced that life was unfair. Why was this happening to me? But then I began to take a broader view and realized how fortunate I was. True, it is easier to say these things now that I know my mother-in-law will be OK, but I was thinking this before we knew how it would all turn out.

This is what I meant when I said at the beginning that I was embarrassed to write this. What right do I have to talk of fairness? What right do I have to complain about hard life is? Yes, my mother-in-law may have had cancer, but she’s going to be OK. We may have missed a trip this summer, but we can always go another time. Life may be fair on the whole, but I’ve definitely gotten the long end of the stick, so to speak. Embarrassing or not, though, this is what has been going through my head, and I just wanted to put it into words. Now it’s time to get back to some semblance of normality, or at least what passes for normality around here.

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