“Life is not fair” is an aphorism that just about everyone has encountered at some point in their lives. Its use is so prevalent that I believe it is something that has gone unchallenged for too long. I don’t debate that life is indeed not fair for different people in different ways, however I do debate very much about the appropriateness and helpfulness of trotting out one of the world’s most tired cliches.
Granted, it does have some capacity to help re-align someone’s perspective if they fail to recognise ample blessing in their lives, but I would wager that in many instances this is one of the most thoughtless, insensitive and unhelpful things that can be said to someone who’s grieving.
My experience has shown that in many instances, if someone is expressing the often despairing sentiment that something is not fair, it is often something of consequence which weighs heavily on the heart of the person expressing it. I know there have been many tear-filled conversations over the years where I’ve expressed a profound dissatisfaction with how life has been for me, especially in my early 20’s when it seemed everywhere I turned I was greeted with wedding after wedding of friends enjoying the gift of heterosexuality without even thinking about it. These weren’t the first-world-problems complaints about wishing I had more money or a faster car, but the pangs of someone who felt like he was being torn apart, inside out.
Whilst most had the good sense not to trot out the dreaded line, some did not. In some cases I appreciated that the intentions of my friend were indeed good and honourable and represented not only a desire to help, but also the fact that this was an issue beyond their expertise and they didn’t know what to say. However, for others it was painfully evident that no such concern was to be found and this is what rouses my unrelenting distaste for this awful phrase:
It’s often what is said by someone who appears to be giving advice but often hasn’t been bothered to properly think about what has brought the other person to such exasperation.
If you have a friend or relative who is pouring their heart out about something which obviously matters a great deal to them and the response they get is “Life is not fair” then I would ask a) Why did you say that? and, b) What have you actually changed? If the person is in tears about the loss of a loved one; the spouse they may never have; the permanent injury they’ve suffered, then how does it help them to hear “Life is not fair”?
If someone is baring their heart to you then implicit in that action is a gesture of deep trust in you. With it also comes the capacity to bring comfort and healing, or to only hurt them further and bring damage not only to them, but the relationship you share. If you want to help them then you must put some thought into how you respond. Consider the issue at hand from their perspective; consider the place and nature of the individual concerned and don’t underestimate the value of being there to listen and support. Your friend may not be seeking answers from you, but validation. Responding “Life is not fair” can achieve the complete opposite and be perceived as: “I don’t really care.”