The Luxury of Outrage
Hold it! Hold it! Grandpa, you read that wrong. She doesn’t marry Humperdinck. She marries Westley. I’m just sure of it. After all he did for her, if she didn’t marry him, it wouldn’t be fair. Well who says life is fair? Where is that written? Life isn’t always fair. Who gets Humperdinck? I don’t understand. Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody’s got to do it! Is it Inigo? Who? Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives. You mean he WINS? JESUS, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
Kids are big on fair. Things need to be fair. Parents spend an inordinate amount of time making sure everyone has the exact same number of Gummi worms, or the same allotment of time on the X-box. Making sure everyone takes a turn picking tv shows, and no one gets to stay up ten minutes later than anyone else. That seems to be the childhood barometer of fair, by and large- EVEN. EQUAL. THE SAME.
I hear adults telling children life isn’t fair all the time. They’re right.
It is not fair that in a wealthy country like ours as many as 17 million children go hungry on any given night. It isn’t fair that the quality of a child’s education frequently depends on their zip code. It is not fair that racism and homophobia still rear their ugly heads every day, intent on convincing wide swathes of our population that they matter less. It isn’t fair that women make 73 cents on the dollar for doing the same jobs that men do. It is not fair that innocent children get cancer, and that some people do terrible things and are never held accountable.
It is brutally, deeply, fundamentally, crushingly UNfair.
While we get frustrated with our kids for single mindedly insisting all things be equitable all the time, let’s examine where on earth they’d have gotten the notion that’s the way the world works.
How many Disney movies have you seen where the hero dies? Where the villain is not vanquished? That’d be zero- because the smart people at Mickey’s headquarters know that shit will. not. fly. The princess must get her prince, and whatever evil beings stood in their way must get their comeuppance. Happily ever after is a given. You need only look to the grandson’s reaction in The Princess Bride to see what it looks like when a kid is served up an ending that doesn’t fit that mold.
We tell them life’s not fair, and then feed them a steady diet of stories and movies where everything’s coming up rainbows and unicorns. We insulate them from life’s biggest inequalities, and strive to make everything fair all the time at the micro level. No wonder they’re shocked when confronted with the unbelievable harshness of the real world. We pay them lip service by telling them not to expect fairness, but we do precious little to prepare them to face that in reality.
When I hear the Life’s not fair mantra coming out of adults’ mouths (including my own) it’s almost always done in a ‘get over it’ tone. But I don’t think we, as grown ups, have gotten over it.
It strikes me that while a child’s perception of fair frequently seems to be centered around everybody getting the same whatever, adults fixate on fairness, too- but we’ve re-branded it. We call it JUSTICE.
I’m not sure how much time I spent being an actual child. I learned life isn’t fair pretty early on- so I don’t remember spending a lot of time angst-ing over the perceived inequality of things. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know there was imbalance and darkness in the world. I think I skipped straight to adult mode. I didn’t automatically assume things would be okay, or people would always be good- but when they weren’t, I wanted things RIGHTED.
That happens less often than you might think.
Adults have moved through the world enough to know things are not equal. Not everybody gets the same. Not even close. This is new information to kids. They still have the luxury of outrage. Sadly, most of us have moved past that.
Perhaps it’s because, as we get older and fully understand how profoundly unfair the world is, we can’t let ourselves think about it too much. If, while we’re hollering at our kids for taking epically long showers, we let ourselves think about the fact that somewhere in the world a small child is walking miles every day for potable drinking water, the staggering injustice would paralyze us. Maybe that’s why we’re dismissive when our kids complain about things not being fair.
I think the difference between the way children think about this and the way we do is pretty simple when you get right down to it. Children still believe the world CAN be fair. They haven’t given up on the idea. I think we have, to a certain extent. I think we look at everything that is wrong, and devastating, and imbalanced in the world, and we throw our hands up. We focus on punishing the evil-doers. We give ourselves a pass on fixing the inequalities in the first place.
I want to get back to looking at the world through the eyes of a child. I want to watch the news and not sigh hopelessly. I want to be freshly outraged- because outrage precipitates action. I want to, when faced with how unfair this beautiful world of ours can be, say JESUS, Grandpa! And then DO something about it.