Do you find yourself frustrated with your life, bemoaning to yourself—or to anyone who will listen—that it isn’t fair that life isn’t fair?
I think this is a very common state of mind, explored and expressed in ways from the sublime to the ridiculous. In universities, the philosophers ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” In seminaries, the religious element enters the equation with the theodicy question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” On the street, we just answer the question by saying, “Shit happens.”
When I was in graduate school, writing my clinical psychology dissertation on this topic, my mother sent me a cartoon of Hagar the Horrible. It was a two-framed comic strip. In the first frame, Hagar the Horrible is standing tall in his boat during the middle of a thunderstorm, outraged and looking to the heavens, shouting, “Why me?” And in the second frame, the heavens shout back with a smile, “Why not?”
If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.
We expect life to be fair. We expect that if we are good, we will be rewarded. We expect that if we eat and exercise regularly, we will be healthy. We expect that if we work hard, we will make a lot of money. We expect that if we are considerate on the freeway, other drivers will be considerate, too. We expect that if we are honest, we will be met with honesty; if we are kind, we will be met with kindness; if we try hard, we will succeed.
Even though experiences in life do not show this to be true all the time, we still expect it to be true all time. From a psychoanalytic point of view, I think we once needed to expect it to be true all the time.
As infants, we come into this world utterly helpless and dependent on another person to take care of our every need. It is biologically and psychologically helpful to have the fantasy that we can influence our environment. If we cry, mommy will hear us. If we reach out, mommy will pick us up. This is how we let her know that we need her—and if we let her know, she will meet our needs. As psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion put it, our pre-conception is met by a realization. What we expect happens. And all is right with the world.
If we pay close attention to ourselves, we can see how this biological expectation gets translated into a more psychological expectation: if we are good, mommy will love us. This is the seed for more elaborate fantasies that God or the universe will reward us for our goodness. This is a universal expectation, something that we all have and need—at least at first. For these fantasies help us to engage with life in a productive way. If we didn’t have these fantasies—and if they weren’t fulfilled at some level—we would give up on life, on our parents, and on ourselves. For the sake of survival, we have to believe that what we do has an effect on those we need.
But just as babies do, we take it too far. We come to believe that we have more influence and control than we do. To use the psychoanalytic term, we come to believe that we have omnipotent control. By omnipotent, I mean that we believe we can totally control what happens to us. We make life much more simple than it is and believe we have much more control than we actually do.
To use a very old image, we reduce life to being like a juke box. Do you remember juke boxes? You make your selection, put your quarter in, and it plays your song. Voile! Total control.
But we all know that life doesn’t work that way all time. It may seem like it works that way some of the time, because we do have some influence on what happens to us. People who eat well and exercise regularly do, statistically speaking, have better health and longevity overall. People who work hard do tend to be more successful in life than those who do not. People who are respectful of others tend to garner the respect of others. But there is no guarantee. We can think of many examples where this formula does not prove to be true at all. And, when it comes to omnipotent control, it is the “exceptions” that prove the real point: we cannot influence our lives in omnipotent ways.
As the biblical Psalmist observes, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. This idea is more profound than it might seem at first glance. There is a truth embedded in this analogy. Let me put it this way: life is less like a juke box and more like the weather.
There is no justice in the weather. Yes, in ancient times (or in modern times when we are under duress and grasping wildly for explanations), some might take a mental leap to believe that people are punished for wrongdoing with earthquakes or fires or floods. But generally speaking, we do not think about matters of fairness when it comes to sunny or cloudy skies. The rain comes or it doesn’t come. It is hot or not, cool or not. We know that we can do little to influence the weather. But because we do not expect to have any influence, we do not tend to despair. We do not rail against the gods. Because we do not expect it to be any other way, we just deal with it.
That is a pretty healthy attitude toward life. Take it as it comes. Deal with it. While we do not have much influence over how life comes to us, we do have influence over how we respond to it, how we cope with it. A rainy day is much better if we remember to bring our umbrellas, side-step the puddles, and drive carefully. In other words, we cannot influence how life comes to us, but we can influence how we come to life.
If we can begin to relinquish the omnipotent fantasies that our baby selves tend to cling to, we have the chance to make the best of what our lives give to us. We take it as it comes, without judgment or resentment. We take the good with the bad, the sun and the rain. We can receive each day with gratitude as well as with resolve to do what we can to make the best of it.
I once heard a wise man say that we cannot do everything but we can do something–and what we can do we ought to do. That is not what babies do, but that is what grown-ups do.
So grab your umbrella. Go live your life. Take it as it comes. And deal with it.