Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Fair is not everyone getting the same, but everyone getting what theyneed.

Justice is a big and controversial topic that dominates our news channels and makes headlines. Whether it's justice against an individual for a crime they've committed, or the injustice of human suffering, justice - what's fair - has been big news since Cain and Abel.

On November 21st 1974, not far from where I now work, two bombs exploded in two pubs 50 yards apart in Birmingham city centre. The explosions were so powerful they wrecked a passing bus and blew a number of victims through a brick wall. A third bomb was placed outside a nearby bank but failed to detonate.

Twenty one people were killed and one hundred and eighty two people were injured. The bombs were believed to have been planted by the IRA, and six Irishmen were arrested that day and subsequently jailed for this act, amidst calls for the reintroduction of hanging. 

Justice had been served - or had it? Sixteen years later their convictions were quashed due to the unreliability of the evidence and the fact that their "confessions" had been extorted through violence. Just last year, the brother and sister of one of those murdered petitioned for the case to be reopened and the perpetrators brought to justice. 

My only connection to this story is the squat stone memorial I pass every day on my way to work, the side inscribed with the names of all those who tragically lost their lives that day. There are flowers laid by this monument all year round. Even after all this time, the unfairness of this act is fresh in many people's minds, and the sense of injustice remains.

As I was discussing the bombings with one of my colleagues in the office this week, I learnt that in the anti-Irish reprisals following the event his young Irish parents had been forced to close their newly opened butchers shop having had bricks through the windows and deliberate lack of custom. They'd come to England to escape the troubles back in Ireland, and the shop was going to be their big break, but circumstances and anti-Irish feeling ruined them. Hardly seems fair either does it? 

As I continue to watch my kids develop (with great joy on the whole) it seems to me that a sense of justice seems to be hard-wired into us from a very young age - or at the very least a strong awareness of when things are unfair. Arguing over toys, over who gets into the bath first, over who gets to sit on my lap.. seemingly trivial situations often rapidly degenerate into an argument about what's fair and what's not. (Usually that 'it's not fair'!).

But what is fair? Is it always about equal portions? Dividing things up exactly? Everyone getting the same? When I was growing up and we were treated to tinned peach slices for pudding (or goldfish as we often pretended they were), each of us kids had an equal number of slices publicly counted into our bowl, to at least minimise the chances of an argument (if not eliminate completely).

But we all know that life tends not to be as clear cut as the number of peach slices you have in your bowl. My wife's family had a great saying when they were growing up, that 'life's equally unfair', which I think does a good job capturing the general injustice we face in the world around us, especially when growing up with numerous siblings!

I've been reading the Psalms again recently and a phrase leapt out at me when re-reading  a familiar one the other day: 

"Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it." (Psalm 139:14 NLT)

I love the thought that we've been made to be wonderfully complex. As someone with a tendency to overthink things, I found this really liberating. And it's this wonderful complexity that makes fairness less about things needing to bethe same for everyone and more about recognising the fact that we each need something different.

We're uneven, each of us with multi-dimensional needs - and it's the variation and the texture between us that makes our relationships so rich. We don't all need the same things - consider someone with a visual impairment who reads braille through the textures their fingers encounter. To this person, fairness wouldn't be to give them a print version of the daily paper to read just the same as everyone else - in fact our sense of justice tells us this would be discriminatory! 

Now then, dear reader, you may be thinking to yourself that it's all very well to recognise that our needs are different, but how on earth do we do something about it? It can be hard enough to know what we really want or need ourselves, let alone others around us! 

One book I've found very helpful on this topic over the years is Gary Chapman's 'The Five Love Languages'. This is a very readable exploration of the different 'languages' we use to communicate, not in terms of French, German and Spanish, but about how we emotionally communicate love to those around us. 

He talks about five primary love languages: Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. Each of us needs all of these in different forms, but we'll often have one which is the main way in which we give and receive love.

Recognising one another's love languages can help us to relate to each other better. For me, one of my main love languages is Acts of Service, which is one of the reasons I make so much tea for my colleagues in the office! I appreciate it when people do things for me, it makes me feel loved - and isn't the need to be loved that the deepest need we all have?

On this earth we'll never fully be able to make sure everyone's needs are completely met. Life will always be 'equally unfair'. Terrible acts of injustice will continue to occur. But to do our lives justice let's embrace each other's wonderful complexity and look for individual and personal ways to meet the needs of those around us... Fair is not everyone getting the same, but everyone getting what they need.

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group, to see what the other group members had to say on the same title have a read of Phil's, Nicola's and Wendy's posts. If you want to join our blog buddies group contact

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