Jake was a model employee. He’d been with the same company for 45 years, and never missed a day. At his retirement party, he received a farewell gift: a trip for two to Aruba. It was something Jake and his wife had always dreamt of.
A week later, they were on their way to the airport. While going through security, Jake suddenly collapsed, and died of a heart attack.
Jenny was a model athlete: tall, muscular, and motivated. From the age of fifteen she’d won practically every triathlon she took part in. At her Olympic qualifier she crushed the national competition. Two more weeks, and she would be on her way to represent her country.
Friends threw her a farewell pool party. That night, Jenny slipped over an ice cube, and landed on the edge of the pool. With a broken tibia, she could kiss her Olympic dreams goodbye. She never reached her old level again.
Folkert, my father, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Last year, one of his doctors told him he was in the final stages, and advised him to get his affairs in order. While I was visiting, we got a second opinion which was much more optimistic.
My father began a breakthrough treatment to which he responded remarkably well. Instead of a few months, he was given a number of years. Then he started experiencing new symptoms, completely unrelated to his cancer. On September 30th, he was diagnosed with ALS.
DO YOU HAVE THE ANSWER
What do you make of these stories? How do you respond? What can you possibly say to Folkert, Jenny, and to Jake’s wife?
Is there a satisfactory answer to the question why bad things happen to good people?
Some have tried to come up with something, as if knowing the answer would somehow soften the blow. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, I get very uncomfortable when people attempt to make a wrong right. On what authority are they speaking? What do they know that I don’t?
Please don’t tell me that “everything happens for a reason,” or that it’s “for the better.” Don’t tell me there is a G-d who orchestrates cruel things out of love for his unruly children. Don’t tell me that Jake, Jenny, and Folkert deserved their fate because of some colossal cosmic conspiracy we call karma.
It doesn’t help.
It only hurts.
Yet, in the back of most people’s minds is the belief that we reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. It’s at the heart of the American Dream. If you study, apply yourself, and work hard, you can go from foster care to self-made millionaire. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If you are a good person, good things will happen to you. Good boys get rewarded. Bad boys get punished.
But what about all those bad boys who end up on top? The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more selfish, cutthroat executives you’ll encounter. They didn’t get there by playing nice. In certain circles, success knows no mercy. It’s either eat or be eaten. Sharks in fancy suits walk all over gentle Mr. Goody two-shoes, the docile doormat.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR CAREER
A few days ago I had a serious conversation with one of my voice-over students. In the last twelve months, she had invested a nice chunk of change in her studio. She bought a great new mic, a lovely preamp, and even a new computer.
I believe in her, and more importantly, she believes in herself.
When we started our session, she sounded peeved.
“Paul,” she said, “Over the past couple of years I have worked my butt off. You know that. I promised myself to give this voice-over thing a good shot. When I listen back to some of my early recordings, I can tell that I have grown. And when I listen to what else is out there, I know I have something to offer. You said so yourself. But get this…
The other day I told one of my voice-over friends that I was going to audition for that commercial we talked about. I really poured everything you’ve taught me into that audition, and I sounded pretty good, if I say so myself. Guess who got the job? My friend! The one who has zero personality and zero experience. She even let me listen to her audition, and it was mediocre at best.
Be honest with me, Paul. Did I just waste years of my life? Should I sell my equipment? What good did all of that training do if I get beaten by a newbie? It’s so frustrating, and it makes me mad! How long do I have to wait for my big break?”
THE MYTH OF OVERNIGHT SUCCESS
When I heard her question, I had to think of actress Jenna Fischer. You probably know her as Pam from the American version of The Office. She always wanted to be an actor, and she eventually moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream. She fully expected to be working in movies within a year of coming to LA. It didn’t happen that way.
Jenna worked as a temp, she took acting and improv classes, and she borrowed money to make ends meet. At one point she had to wear a pair of shoes with a hole in them because she couldn’t afford anything else. It took her more than six long years before she finally got “discovered.”
Jenna Fischer is a perfect example of the adage that it can take years to become an overnight success. She knows from experience that the (voice) acting business is without guarantees, no matter how talented and motivated you are. When asked about it, she had this to say:
“This business is not fair. It is not like other businesses where if you show up, and work above and beyond everyone’s expectations, you are pretty much guaranteed to move up the ladder. I don’t know why it works out for some and not for others. And when you move here (Hollywood, P.S.) you have no idea which camp you are going to fall into.”
JUST BE FAIR
“Fair” is an interesting concept. Most dictionaries define it as “in accordance with the rules.” Most rules civil societies live by, are practical, logical, and even reasonable. They’re an example of cause-effect thinking: If A, then B. Without rules, life would be chaotic.
Most of us have unwritten rules that guide our hopes and expectations. To name a few: “If I train hard, and do my very best, I will be successful.” Or “If I live a healthy life, I will live a long life.”
Here’s the problem: those rules aren’t always reasonable, and they are rarely absolute. They only seem that way. What makes sense, and what seems right from our limited perspective, doesn’t necessarily happen. Kind, innocent people die young. Selfish bastards live to be a hundred. No explanation given.
Secondly: Most people don’t play by our rules. They might not even be aware of them. Perhaps they’re playing a different game altogether, and we don’t even see it. Many decisions that affect us, have nothing to do with us.
Third: Life isn’t logical. It’s not a matter of “If A, then B.” Usually, it’s: “If A, then D or Z.” People are emotional beings, and what they do isn’t cold and calculated. We forget. We make mistakes. We act impulsively, and break all the rules.
Last but not least: Even though we often think we are, we’re never one hundred percent in control. If we’re physically and mentally healthy, we can control our actions to a great extent, but we cannot control the outcome. Life consists of too many variables. Even perfectionists have to admit that…. at some point.
So, where does this leave us?
Are we hopeless and helpless leaves in the winds of chance? Should we stop trying to accomplish things, simply because the outcome is uncertain, and likely to be unfair?
I’ll tell you what I think we should do.
We should begin by skipping the question “Why.” “Why me, why this, why now?”
Asking “Why” is asking for a logical, reasonable explanation which you won’t always get. I hate to break it to you, but your rules, conscious or unconscious, don’t apply all the time.
My student did everything she could to win that audition. There was nothing she could have done to change the preference of the client.
Jenny missed the Olympics because she accidentally stepped on that ice cube. It wasn’t part of some devious celestial plan.
Jake had earned that dream vacation, but he died at the airport because his heart stopped working. Period.
My father did nothing to deserve ALS. There wasn’t anything he could have done to prevent it from affecting him. The question “fair or not fair” isn’t going to change his condition. He has to learn to live with ALS, and he’ll eventually die with it.
One last thing, if I may.
Most people tend to contemplate the issue of fairness when they believe they’ve been wronged, tricked, or were denied something they felt entitled to. That’s when they will ask the question “Why?”
When things go really well, and life smiles upon us, we hardly ever ask the question “Why me, why this, why now?”
We take our good fortune for granted.
Think about it.
Is that really fair?
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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