How do you like your coffee? Black? With enough cream to give it substance? Or loaded with sugar to cut the bitterness? Perhaps you’ve guessed that I’m not really asking about coffee, or even tea, for that matter. I’m asking about life. How do you like your reality—straight up or sugar-coated? Well, here’s some straight up truism to contradict the soothing sweet cliches we see written on pretty lotus flowers.
Life is not fair.
Love is not enough.
Sometimes, you will fail.
Bam! Did that feel like a hit of negativity, or a shot of refreshing truth?
We spend a lot of time sugar coating reality. We do it to console and give hope, as though the truth would overwhelm the recipient. We might fear this because we secretly feel that the other person is not strong enough to handle the truth; but more likely, we fear this because—deep inside—we think it would also overwhelm us.
Most people are taught to perceive the moment to moment progression of reality as being either good or bad. Things are going well or they’re going poorly. Justice is either prevailing or it’s getting trounced. Love (whether we have it or not) is either glorious or heartbreaking. But is any of this really true? Does reality have to be good or bad, or can it just—be?
I think our hearts are less fragile, and our spirits stronger, than we think. I believe that we have it within ourselves to forge ahead with full awareness of reality in all its many tones, colors and conditions. Those outcomes that feel so wrong to us from our perspective, and that may seem so right from someone else’s, do not need to make us feel victimized. The existence of inequality, does not need to induce despair. I think we are courageous and resilient enough to accept reality without crying, “Unfair!” and plopping our butts in the sand to pout. I really do. And yet, that childish response is exactly what we learn and what we unintentionally pass on to our own children when we sugar coat reality.
Children aren’t born with preconceptions about fairness, we give them that. For them, life is life. When they get what they want, they’re happy. When they don’t, they’re sad. They don’t know about fairness until we teach them. Have you ever watched toddlers at play? They don’t share their toys to be fair, they share them because they’re no longer interested in playing with that item at the moment. We teach them, through empathy, that it’s good to share and, in so doing, we bring to their attention that it’s unfair when people don’t share with them. We even give them a word to describe their unhappiness—a very powerful word.
We insist that our own children behave fairly (at least, from our subjective point of view) and console them when that behavior is not returned by others. But then we confuse the matter with our own inconsistent behavior. After all, much of parenting involves decisions that bring on temporary unhappiness. Right? We can be truthful. Good parenting involves teaching and setting limitations as well as all the warm fuzzy stuff. So, is it any wonder that we get hit with the “unfair” accusation? Our behavior reflects reality, while our words transmit our hope. We desperately want life to be fair to our children but, at the same time, we do intelligent responsible things that frequently feel unfair to them. And then, to make matters even more confusing, we preach about the merits of fairness and complain, bitterly, about the unfairness we suffer in our own lives and see in the world. What does all of this teach our children? What attitudes does it reinforce in us? That life should be fair and it is not. Is that an empowering perspective? Not to me.
But what happens if we just admit, right off the bat, that life is not fair? Will the fabric of human decency unravel? I don’t think so. I believe we can strive for fairness and govern our actions accordingly without the unreasonable expectation that it will always be returned. I believe that we can face our own disappointments without reverting to feelings of despair and persecution. I think we can survive our own setbacks without yelling, “Unfair!” and plopping our butts in the sand. And I believe we can model that empowerment to our children. If they are allowed to see reality as it is, they will learn to operate within it, as happy, powerful, pro-active adults. Children are intelligent beings that respond well to the truth. I sincerely believe this. And guess what? So are we.
Not only can clarity and empathy coexist, but when they do, we become powerful enough to fight for change, and resilient enough to understand when it fights back.