Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What Is Fair?

This timely essay from a reader:

In high-school I knew a teacher who was fond of asking her students “What is fair?” It was by repeatedly posing this question that she inadvertently taught me something of value. That is; when people refer to fairness or unfairness in life, what they are usually talking about is the justness or unjustness of life.

Last week I came home to find my wife and my mother-in-law watching television. The magnitude of the loss in Virginia was just coming to light and they were struck by the senselessness of this tragedy. Over thirty educated, ambitious and successful souls lay dead, their futures, their potentials obliterated in a spasm of senseless fury.

“It’s such a shame” my mother-in-law muttered. “Those people had so much to offer.” She stood to emphasize the gravity of her words. “Such bright young people...” She hitched up her waistband, conjuring a pearl. “I’ve always said life is unfair.” My mind’s eye flashed to Lynda seated at the right hand of God, a great ledger open in her lap. The dramas of men played out beneath her feet and she marked off each accordingly. Genocide; unfair. A good marriage; fair. Poor service from public utilities; unfair. Excellent attentiveness from a waiter or waitress; fair. “Timmy, what do you think of all this?” she asked me. It was clearly her opinion this was a good time to form a discussion group which she would lead.

I shook my head thoughtfully. “It’s a shame” I said and added somberly “I’d better water before dinner.”

Outside, shadow had just begun to fall across our garden. As the sun arcs across the sky, shade from our house gradually engulfs our little plot from the West to the East. This fact is evident in the height of the plants. Like a leafy sundial, sprouts nearest the sunnier eastern end are tallest with rows diminishing in height toward the shadier western edge. Sunflowers, scallions, watermelons and garlic are all prospering in direct relation to their time in the light.

I turned the hose on and thought about what had transpired on that campus in Virginia. It was a shameful thing indeed.

After watering, I examined my new plants. Most were robust, but there were a few which had already been devastated by insects or whatever other natives of our yard enjoy dining on fresh chlorophyll. The damage was spread across the breadth of the garden from the West to the East uniformly. Parasites are fair. Any of the plants could have been laid low. Mortality is no respecter of position.
My daughters, instinctively drawn toward an area where mud is being formed, joined me in the garden. They helped me water the onions. They watered their shoes and then the dog and then the windows. It is very nice that we live in a house with a yard. Many of the children who go to school and pre-school with Kelly and Lilah live in apartments. They sometimes come to our house for play dates and often times, do not wish to leave. They don’t tend to feel that it’s fair that Kelly has a nice dog and plenty of grass to roll around on and they do not.

As I toweled off my girls I wondered how many students were at that moment watching news of Virginia Tech from the safety of their “fallback school” and marveling at how fortunate they were to have received rejection letters (which presumably, they must have felt were very unfair at the time.) I wondered how many students with outstanding transcripts but modest means felt fortunate at that moment to have settled for a state school.

I wondered how many kids were just now marveling at the terrible familiarity of the nightmare in Virginia while they patrolled on foot or while they cleaned their weapons and I wondered if they bothered to consider the fairness or unfairness of it all.

Dusk fell over the garden as I was plucking the dead and dying from among the rows. I am aware that there are man-made solutions for the problems I face as a grower of food but I won’t utilize any of them. I’ve chosen to respond to fairness in the garden with the justice of producing small, highly perishable versions of the irradiated, mustard-gassed vegetables in the supermarket.

I stood looking at my work and thought I worried too much about fairness. I worry too much that bad things might happen to me, when it is an absolute certainty that they will.

What happened in Virginia last week was a tragedy because it was brutally fair. That the sons and daughters of privilege can be subject to the same perils faced by the sons and daughters of elsewhere may not be palatable but it is true.

Eventually, the events in Blacksburg will be eclipsed by events in another place and that horror will be replaced by anther and on and on. These acts do not mean that life has become any less fair. Their passage is simply a by-product of the passage of time. The only meaning to senseless acts will be the legacy of justice or injustice that men chose to leave in their wake.