One recent morning. I sensed my cruddy mood from the get-go and felt it would be a good day to avoid people. I couldn’t, of course.
Seeking the help of caffeine to face the workday, I stopped at McDonald’s. Even before I ordered a large Diet Coke (no ice), I had my $1.09 ready in my hand. Yeah, I had done this before. Okay, pretty much every day. Please don’t judge me. And please, please, don’t tell my wife.
I pulled into one of the two drive-through lanes. Finishing before the person in the other lane had finished her order, I inched forward. When it came time to move ahead, the woman driving the other car cut me off and maneuvered ahead of me.
“Jerk!” I exclaimed. I couldn’t believe I had said that, but I had finished first. I deserved that spot in line.
And, I thought: This is so not fair.
Immediately, I knew I had violated a family rule — embracing what is known in our family as “the forbidden phrase.”
Anyone who has raised children knows that “it’s not fair” is one of most familiar sentences uttered by kids, used in situations that seem both appropriate as well as ridiculous.
We’ve seen parents deal with such circumstances in cowardly ways, in my opinion — like when it’s one child’s birthday, making sure all the other children in the family get a gift so they don’t feel left out. Some youth sports leagues hand out “participation trophies” to all the players on all the teams so the ones who finished in last place don’t suffer an inferiority complex.
Donna and I agree we didn’t like that approach. Not long after the eldest of our four children was able to verbalize observations about injustice, we knew we weren’t going to listen to that for the rest of our lives.
Hence, we labeled “it’s not fair!” as a forbidden phrase amongst those in our little tribe.
If they said it, we wouldn’t listen. That wasn’t a suitable excuse. If something needed to be discussed and handled, we would do that. But the fairness of the concern would not be considered.
Life often doesn’t seem fair, we told them, certainly not on a case-by-case basis.
A person who cheated on a test got a better grade than you, even though you had studied more? You practiced harder getting ready for a game but still barely played when someone who had loafed got more playing time? The flu bug hit you and forced you to stay home from school and miss that fun field trip?
Disappointing? Yes. Irritating? Absolutely. Unfair? It’s possible many folks would agree. That’s because we often view justice in a clearly human way.
Fairness through human eyes lays it out this way: Gimme what I want when I want it. If she has it, I should have it, too. I deserve the best life has to offer just like any other person. And if something bad happens to me, it’s only fair that, well, you know what the Good Book says.
Among other places in Scripture, a passage in Exodus lays out justice this way: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
Thankfully Jesus changed everything. He who hung on the cross for our sins reimagined true justice.
The son who squandered his inheritance didn’t merit a welcome home celebration, but the father felt more than justified in throwing a party. The people who worked only one hour in the vineyards might have understood getting paid less than those who had worked all day, but the owner said all of them were equal in his eyes.
“Eye for an eye” might seem proper as man’s justice. Unexpected mercy and mystery better define what is fair in God’s mind.
Oh, about my “not fair” Diet Coke story … When I finally reached the drive-through window to pay, I learned that the woman who had moved ahead of me in line already had paid my bill. God’s justice indeed works in puzzling, startling, wonderful ways.
Eisenbath is a parishioner at St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles.