We all have automatic assumptions about the way life works, how things should be. In general, we tend to see the world as generally fair. If you work hard, good things will happen. If you are kind to people, people will be kind to you. Mean people will get what’s coming to them.
So when something big happens, and it feels fundamentally unfair, we start to question our automatic assumptions about how life works. We as humans like having a connected story about how and why things happen around us. We like stories that make sense and connect the dots. So when a lifelong addict dies of an overdose, we feel sadness and empathy but the story generally fits. And when someone dies of old age after a full life surrounded by family, we may miss them but we see death as a natural conclusion.
But it’s more difficult to wrap our minds around the story when a child dies, or an otherwise healthy person gets a cancer diagnosis, or a spouse decides to leave a relationship that felt like it was going well. We have to confront the reality that there is no factual basis for our assumption that life will be good or fair or fit our stories of how things should go.
How do we make sense of the world when we realize the fundamental unfairness? What kind of story can we tell ourselves about life when something truly awful happens? Can we find meaning and purpose in a world where children die, good people lose everything, and kind people get cancer? The fact is, we will have to find a way to understand the awful, unfair things that happen in life so that we can keep going and not lose our way.
The two extremes here are either to bury our heads in the sand and insist that things will work out despite all evidence to the contrary, or to maintain a stark awareness of how unfair life is and stay in a state of despair that we will ever be able to progress in the face of deep injustice. Of course, we want to find a middle way. We need to know that life is not fair, that goodness does not protect us from bad things. But we also need to know that there is hope, that our choices toward goodness still count for something, that it’s worth trying and striving in the face of an unfair world.
As someone going through loss, you will naturally find yourself wanting to construct a story of grief. Your mind wants to understand what happened and why. Sometimes, these answers are given to us- if you have a genetic predisposition to Huntington’s Disease, it doesn’t matter how healthy or unhealthy your lifestyle is. It doesn’t matter if you volunteer with at-risk children or give generously to charities, you have a certain likelihood of inheriting the disease based on your parents’ disease status. Sometimes, the answers don’t come easily- why children get bone cancer, why the car crash happened at that moment, who is at fault for a workplace accident.
Walking the middle path means retelling these stories in a way that accounts for the fundamental unfairness of life. Yes, your disease might be genetic, but it was a chance that you were born to those particular parents. Yes, sometimes children get cancer and other serious illnesses, and sometimes they die after only a short life. Our story of how life works has to be able to make sense of these things without assigning blame or coming up with a secret agenda working against us. We have to learn how to see tragedy as something that happens to good and bad people alike without them deserving it.