It’s Not Fair

Posted by on May 20, 2013

My six year old son has come up with a new favorite phrase: “It’s not fair!”  If he’s losing to his brother at a Wii game, he’ll make this claim.  He sees that the Rangers are losing by a couple of runs, and declares that the game is unfair.  If I call him in from playing outside to take a shower before he’s ready to be done?  You guessed it: “It’s not fair.”

What is my response?  Always: “Son, life is not fair. Deal with it.”

On June 2, 2010 in Detroit, Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga was having a career night. He was pitching deep into the 8th inning, having retired the first 26 batters he faced, and was just one out away from pitching the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. The next batter, the 27th man he faced, rolled over and hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield. Miguel Cabrera, playing first base, ran over to field the ball while Galarraga raced to cover first. The first baseman pitched the ball to Galarraga, who caught the ball cleanly a half step ahead of the arrival of the runner. The entire defense was on the cusp of bursting into celebration when first base umpire Jim Joyce bellowed “Safe!” with his arms stretched outward in that familiar sign. Galarraga looked at him with a smirk on his face, like one might look at a friend who was pulling a practical joke. But Joyce was dead serious. He was apparently the only person in Comerica Park who didn’t see that the throw had easily beaten the runner to the base.

Despite immediate protests by Tigers players and coaching staff, the call on the field was upheld (remember, baseball does not have instant replay for safe/out calls). Galarraga maintained his composure and retired the next batter, just missing a perfect game by one batter – or more accurately, one bad call.

Immediately after the game, Joyce realized his error.  He was inconsolable.  He readily and repeatedly admitted that he had screwed up, and didn’t try to shirk responsibility.  But even though he realized this in the clubhouse just minutes after the game, there was nothing that could have been done.  His bad call cost a young pitcher a piece of history.

Even though Joyce did not intend any harm, Galarraga got screwed that night.  He did everything right, earning what should have been his rightful place in history, but was denied through no fault of his own.  Life’s not fair.

In 1974, 19-year-old James Bain was convicted of kidnapping and rape. The case against him was based almost completely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, the 9-year-old victim of this crime. Although there was genetic material gathered, in 1974 there was little knowledge of DNA and certainly no way to test it for identification purposes. Despite his having an alibi and a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime, Bain was sentenced to life in prison.

Bain stuck with his claim of innocence, and when DNA testing finally matured, he petitioned the court to request testing of the genetic material collected from the crime scene. For years, his requests were denied. Finally, his petition for DNA testing was granted, and the results confirmed what he had been claiming all along: James Bain was not guilty of this crime. After having served 35 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Bain was released in 2009.

James Bain claimed that he was not angry over being wrongly convicted of this crime. Under Florida law, he was entitled to $50,000 per year of imprisonment – for a total of $1.75 million. Bain is now a free man, with enough money to live reasonably well for the rest of his life. But in return, he was cheated out of 35 years of freedom, despite the fact that he was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. No amount of money could ever pay him back for the years he wasted in prison. He left prison a rich man, but it was still a very lopsided transaction. Again, life’s not fair.

Earlier this evening, just a few hours’ drive north of here, a community was devastated by a tornado that is being described as one of the most destructive in history. As of this writing, there are 51 people who are known to be dead as a result of the tragic tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma. Twenty of those dead are children, who died in an elementary school that was directly in the path of the tornado.  The school is absolutely destroyed, and is barely recognizable as a building.  Even the most ardent optimist would have to assume that the casualty count will continue to rise, given the level of destruction and number of souls who are yet unaccounted for.

There’s something about the death of a child that seems to be more unfair than the passing of an adult.  When we hear about the death of an adult, even when the death occurs well before the decedent reaches “old age”, we don’t allow ourselves the same reaction that that which occurs when a child dies an untimely death. So much unfulfilled potential, with the child often unable to understand what’s happening to them, and the difficulty of explaining a child’s death to his/her siblings, classmates, and friends – it just all seems so unfair. As someone who has lost a child (a long story, saved for another day), I can speak firsthand to the feeling of helplessness that often accompanies such a loss.

We all have different ways of dealing with these feelings of grief, helplessness, and unfairness. Some will retreat into their grief, holding in the feelings to try to be strong for their other family members. Others deal with it by allowing their grief to flow through, with the emotion of their grief often consuming their lives. Some lean on belief in god(s) to get them through, expecting that all of life’s events – even the horrible stuff – is part of some master plan.  Still others take on the grief of terrible loss as simply part of the randomness of life.

There was a time when I was in the camp where I believed that everything happened for a reason.  As I’ve matured, I’ve retreated from that belief, and more often than not I find myself reconciling awful events such as these by repeating that life’s not fair.  Why did those children die?  Because, through a lengthy series of events big and small, they ended up attending that particular school on that particular day.  Why did 26 people, including 20 young children, die in the shooting in Newtown?  I believe it’s a result of the fantastic and tragic randomness of life.  They were in a classroom that happened to have a particular attachment to the shooter, and a series of events led this young man to flip out on that particular day.

Why is one person born completely healthy while another struggles through pain or chronic illness on a daily basis?  Why are some people born with a genetic edge – a winning personality, an awesome talent, an athletic aptitude – while others often have to struggle to maintain even menial jobs and relationships?  The fantastic and tragic randomness of life.  Life’s not fair.  Sometimes we benefit from this unfairness (and truth be told, despite my occasional complaints otherwise, I’d say the unfairness scale has more often tipped in my favor than against me), and other times it works against us.  Fantastic and tragic randomness.

How does one console a parent who has lost a child?  I don’t have any answers. Everybody will require something different, depending on their emotional state and philosophical slant.  But for me, I’d hope that I would be reminded that I couldn’t have consciously done anything to prevent such a tragedy.  I would try to remind myself that part of the beauty of life is the fact that it’s unpredictable, unscripted, and unguided.

Life is unfair.  As it must be.

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