Risk is as abundant as air in our daily lives: we live under a cloak of uncertainty, with regular threats to our well-being and survival. We are adapted to such a reality, to the point that we don’t even notice these risks. We drive our cars, zipping along at high speed head-on into others doing the same thing; what we have no control over is whether that person is texting, toying with their car’s navigation screen, or fixing their hair in the mirror. We hear stories of gruesome automobile accidents, see the statistics on traffic fatalities year after year, and then we brush them off, continuing to drive, just hoping for good odds. We hope that this one trip won’t be the time we become a statistic.
Transportation is just the tip of the iceberg. From microscopic viruses like Covid-19, to the pervasive reach of forever chemicals like PFA’s in our raingear, we live in a world full of peril. There are punctuated catastrophes, like hurricanes and earthquakes, that can alter our landscapes, if not end our lives, should we be unlucky enough to lie in their paths. Over the long-term, the bioaccumulation of those chemicals we’ve become so permeated with living in the age of Better living through chemistry combine with the odds of poor genetics, or lifestyle choices, to predispose us to the ticking time-bombs of cancers, illness, and disease.
Then, there are all of the people we interact with, from those we share the road with, to those we share a place in line with at the grocery store, everyone of whom we have no control over; everyone of whom could potentially cause an accident, or worse, intentionally do something, to hurt or even kill us. And don’t forget the freaky, unpredictable nature of life, where strange things happen all the time; where bad things happen to people without any rhyme or reason, any sense of justice.
Need any more reminders of the risky world we live in? Probably not, as it only makes you think of every other danger I haven’t yet mentioned.
I don’t live in this state of mind very often, but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, it brought me back to an old adage that keeps proving itself: Life isn’t fair. I don’t mean this in the entitled, complaining manner someone might bemoan after not getting their way; I mean it in the most serious, life-changing way. It’s been said by millions of people – Life isn’t fair! – usually when we are at the receiving end of some seemingly impossible bad luck, wondering why our good merit hadn’t spared us the pain of tragedy. We compare our hands in life to others, from strangers to our closest family, keeping score of who’s got it worse, who’s got it better, who we think has it so easy. We are naught to compare ourselves to each other, to wonder why a good thing happened to a bad person, or why a bad thing happened to a good person. For life isn’t fair to everyone – we all die someday, and you know the other old saying, everyone’s crap stinks. No one is inherently better than anyone else.
It’s simply a matter of how unfair life will be to us, and whether it will demand the ultimate price from us: our lives. We live everyday just hoping for the grace of good odds; hoping that today isn’t the day we get the phone call of a cancer diagnosis, or the phone call of a death of a loved one, or the phone call of losing a job we depend upon.
Pain and suffering imbue a wide spectrum of grief. Another’s hardship may seem worse than ours, and our own challenges can always seem worse than someone else’s. There are unequivocally worse troubles that no one would deny are harder than something less severe; there are shades on the grief scale that, no matter our perspective or life experience, clearly reflect an unsullied color that cannot be muted or distorted. There are stories so harrowing that we cannot deny the breadth of their impact, the scars to be left by such an ordeal. It is this shared experience of grief, however intense and life-changing, that unites us on a basic human level. We all know suffering on some level, at some point in our lives. We can empathize, at least on some level, with others even if we haven’t experienced their unique suffering.
Take the history of slavery in the United States, for example. Its indelible mark persists today through the many branches of systemic racism, from our schools, to our police departments, to our criminal justice system, to name just a few. No matter your race in this country, it should be self-evident how much injustice and persecution Black and indigenous people have endured throughout our history. Though I know not the weight of such discrimination as a white woman, am certainly no expert on the history of racism, and will never know how it feels to live as a Black person, I can imagine the pent-up frustration one might feel, living to see a man like George Floyd, or a young woman like Breonna Taylor, murdered by law enforcement, and I can empathize with the pain and outrage that follow such loss. You simply need to be human to empathize with such atrocities.
The Black Lives Matter protests around the nation over the last few weeks only seem due given the continuing discrimination and injustices being perpetrated against Black people. This seems like an example of when life isn’t fair, but not because of the randomness of it all; on the contrary, it’s because of the deliberate acts of people who have created a hostile environment of racism for people of color living in our country, from slave-owners, to those who gunned down Ahmaud Arbery, or the scores of other Black men and women killed simply because they were, essentially, just living while Black.
It is a non-negotiable that black people have disproportionately struggled, and died, at the hands of racism in this country. This is an injustice in which every citizen in our country is tasked to take ownership of to ameliorate; this is an instance of life not being fair, but we can do something about it to change it. We can’t undo the past, but we can do better moving forward into the future. Life didn’t need to be unfair, and doesn’t have to continue to be, to any minority group. When we witness such wrongs, we ought to take action to fix them; it is not the time to claim, Life isn’t fair. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and take ownership of our role in the problem, to educate ourselves further, and to try to make the situation better, no matter the color of our skin.
Environmental problems demand our attention and accountability with a similar urgency. We’ve been manipulating, polluting, and destroying our natural resources for so long that we accept it as part of our reality; we have not been fair or just with the ecosystems we live among. The cognitive dissonance most of us have – being educated on the seriousness of climate change, while driving our cars and eating meat from a factory farm – is astounding. We go about our lives, making sacrifices here and there, but most of us, myself included, continue to use resources unsustainably, whether it’s the food we eat, or the electricity we use in our homes, or the remarkable amount of waste we generate.
We all have a big impact on the environment. It’s not fair that we destroy habitat for the animals we share the planet with, basically choosing which species will go extinct forever, and which might have a fighting chance. It’s not fair that we pen in thousands of animals into close quarters, pump them full of chemicals, and then slaughter them for us to eat, complaining when The chicken is too dry, or This T-bone isn’t tender enough. Everyone must follow their own compass when it comes to diet; there is no one-size-fits-all way to eat. However, when you have nearly eight billion people on the planet all competing for resources, perhaps we ought to consider other ways to nourish ourselves that don’t involve increasing greenhouse gases and strain our natural resources, from cow burps of methane, a legitimately big sources of the gas, to the amount of water needed to grow feed to support such livestock. The food web is a complex system, and it’s understandable that people may want to eat meat. What’s different now, however, is that we’ve become so overpopulated; there’s too darn many of us on this planet. Our old ways may not serve us so well anymore; we may consider a more thoughtful approach to how we eat, and the natural resources we consume.
When I hear stories about there only being some fifty-seven Amur Leopards left on the planet, I know in my gut that isn’t fair, and it’s a direct result of human actions. It confounds me that we allow the take of entire species in the name of economic development. There are so many environmental injustices worsening on a daily basis, and these are the fights that need fighting. It’s yet another example of when we shouldn’t just throw our hands in the air and declare, Life isn’t fair. There are so many problems that don’t have to be that way; that someone, or ourselves, has the power to change. There are a multitude of issues around the world that deserve our care and fight. I could go on.
It’s usually pretty obvious when an issue isn’t fair because of a group of people’s actions. It takes more wisdom, however, to know when life just isn’t fair – and despite all of our hoping for good odds, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
It’s hard for us to accept that something random and bad has happened to us or a loved one. We are sidelined by something we didn’t expect, and something we definitely didn’t think we deserved. We cry out in protest, Life isn’t fair!, and it makes no difference to the situation at all.
These are the times when we needn’t point fingers at others, especially ourselves, for befalling such poor luck. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, I definitely felt that way. I went over my life with a fine-toothed comb looking for any clue of where I’d possibly set myself up for such disease. I am still learning to let go of this rumination, to let go of what’s done, and accept the mystery of cancer, that I’ll likely never know what caused it.
One thing that keeps proving itself? Life isn’t fair. At some point, life will be unfair to us; we just hope we don’t have to die for it, although that’s often the case. There’s no point in comparing our plight to others. Life catches up with all of us when we die. During the blessed time we’re granted to live, though, we will all experience some level of life not being fair to us. Some may have it worse, some may seem to have it better; the only thing we have control over is how we respond. Though we may look upon others with envy, thinking they may have life so easy eating with a silver spoon, or seeming to have it all, we never really know what lies beneath the surface, what goes on behind closed doors. None of us are perfect.
We need to be compassionate to each other during hard times; we all go through hard times that test our faith and patience. Though I’m going through a challenging time right now with chemotherapy for breast cancer, there are people suffering worse than me: people dying from Covid-19, or losing loved ones from it; people who are working through their own cancer treatments because they must put food on the table; people who live without a dependable source of freshwater and sanitation infrastructure. The spectrum of grief is wide, and I can see my privilege on that scale even as I fight cancer, albeit someone else may look at me and wonder why I have it so hard, and how much it must suck to be going through this during a pandemic. It’s all relative, and that’s why I try not to compare myself too much; why I try not to pity myself, nor gloat my good graces, for someone always has it worse.
Recently, a tragedy rattled our small mountain town of Ben Lomond, driving home just how unfair life can be. On Saturday, June 6, 2020, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sergeant Damon Gutzwiller was murdered responding to a call of a van full of explosives and weapons, only to be ambushed by the deranged shooter. Two neighbors’ heroic actions, and that of his dog, detained the active Air Force member turned shooter until police could arrest him. There is a lot more to this story, as more details are yet to be revealed in this active case. The immense loss – of a husband, father, family member, friend, sergeant – erupted within the San Lorenzo Valley community like a volcano, its violent lava flows taking an innocent man’s life, and its toxic gases and ash permeating the lives of so many who knew and loved him, leaving some breathlessly choking for air, and others downwind with the singe of sadness, knowing such tragedy took place here in SLV. It was a huge reminder that life isn’t fair.
I cannot imagine the stress, terror, and adrenaline all responding law enforcement officers had that day; some forty agencies responded, from all over the greater Bay Area and Central Coast. With that response came an incessant barrage of sirens, starting around 2 p.m. I live in Ben Lomond, less than two miles South of where the incident took place. Highway 9, the main artery running North to South through SLV, is about a quarter-mile West of our house, so we always hear if there’s a siren, or particularly loud motorcycle, for that matter.
As my husband Ron and I were puttering around the house doing chores, we noticed there wasn’t just the usual one or two sirens; several more wailed at full volume, and we could hear their engines roaring up the road with urgency. We both sensed something serious was going on immediately. Then, more sirens. Even more sirens. It became a steady scream of tension, and we could hear ever more units coming in the distance. The valley echoes sound really well, and all we could hear were sirens.
Gripped by the onslaught of arriving law enforcement, wondering what was going on, we were rapt with awe, staring out our windows, knowing all well we couldn’t see anything relevant, but we were at least looking in their direction. We went online to check the local news sites; nothing was up yet. I tried to pick up a book, but it was pointless trying to read. I knew after about twenty minutes of constant sirens that something really bad had happened; I felt it in my gut, and started tearing up. Someone’s died, I sensed. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to infer this, but I felt so saddened; who had died? Had they suffered? Was there a killer on the run? I imagined whomever had died, and thought about their loved ones; did they have family? A spouse? Children? I imagined those people getting the worst phone call of their lives. I am an empathetic person, but this time I just let myself cry for whatever had happened, details of which I still didn’t know.
I’d never heard so many sirens in my life. Then, the helicopters showed up. Highland Park is about a half-mile North of our house, and it’s where all the Medivacs land if there’s a bad car accident or injury up in the Valley. We’re used to hearing them on occasion, but combined with the sirens, we knew it was a serious injury, or death, this time. After one landed and took off, another one came in. There seemed to be another yet circling low, as if in search of a suspect. In their rotations, they would pass directly over our house, rattling the windows, their sound quite amplified. The cacophony of high-pitched, stress inducing wails quickly became both gripping, and distracting. I could not bring myself to do anything else but stand outside and listen, growing more anxious.
It had been about an hour by now, and Ron was busy looking online for information, when he found early details of an officer involved shooting with a possible fatality. It was an active shooter situation with possible suspects on the loose, and the town of Ben Lomond was advised to shelter-in-place until further notice. They had closed off the Highway and main road around our house. We definitely weren’t going anywhere.
More sirens came. It seemed endless; I couldn’t imagine how many cars were speeding up to the scene of the crime. More helicopters. I realize how pitiful I must sound talking about the sirens, the noise, and the stress of hearing all of this, when real officers lived this in real life, and one had paid the ultimate price. But this was one of the most tension-filled afternoons I’ve had in a really long time. I could not distract myself with anything. I stood, paced, looked online for information, and then paced some more.
At some point during the afternoon, we learned that a deputy, only 38 years old, had been shot and killed, and that a man with explosives and guns had shot him, but few other details were clear. Knowing an officer had been murdered broke my heart. I cried for the thought that this man had shown up for work that day, just doing his job with integrity, and now he was never coming home again. I didn’t know much about him, yet, but I imagined how his family was feeling. Surely there were some who had gotten the news amid the roar of sirens and helicopter blades piercing the air like swords; someone was having the worst day of their life, compounded by the audible symbol of the unfolding tragedy that had just taken their loved one. I thought about the dirty clothes in the laundry that he had worn, waiting to be washed; the breakfast plate that may have been left in the sink; the last Goodbye that he may have shared with his loved ones. I just lost it crying for this person I hadn’t the honor of meeting; in our small town, I think many others cried, too.
Life isn’t fair, I lamented angrily. Why do bad things happen to good people?!
It wasn’t until around 7 p.m., about five hours after the approximate start, that the sirens started tapering off. Suddenly, there was a quiet gap of thirty seconds or so with no new sirens, only to be replaced by several more trickling in. By around 8 p.m., things were all but quieted down, but the tension for so many was most certainly not. I barely ate dinner, and couldn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. that night; I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about life in general, about my cancer, about everything. The next morning, I had a terrible tension headache, neckache, and threw up. I’ve reacted from stressful situations in this way before, so wasn’t too concerned and went back to sleep until 6 p.m. the next night.
As I read more details about what had occurred, I felt so sad for his wife, who is pregnant, and their two-year old. It was not fair that they were left behind. I imagined how crestfallen the Sheriff’s department must have felt; how robbed his family and friends were of future memories. It just wasn’t fair. For whatever reason, he suffered terrible odds that day. He never deserved to die like that. Though the shooter is in custody and currently facing nineteen felony charges, including murder, no amount of criminal justice will ever make this tragedy right, nor bring back Sergeant Gutzwiller, may he rest in peace.
Life simply isn’t fair, and we live day-to-day just hoping for good odds. We hope that life isn’t too unfair to us, that statistics are on our side. All it takes is one event, one moment, to change everything. We live our lives accepting this risk everyday, making peace with the chances we take. We hope for the grace of good odds, that we make it through another day unscathed.
We must fight for what isn’t fair that must be changed; to right the wrongs of our past, and the wrongs of our present. Whatever your passion or cause, if it’s for the betterment of people or the environment at large, or everything in between, stand up for that; give it a voice. You don’t need to be the loudest person in the room to make a difference, but genuinely caring and being informed are a good place to start. There’s no need for things to be unfair that can be rectified. This includes standing up for yourself when someone isn’t treating you well, or you’re the victim of discrimination, or you’re witnessing the mistreatment of another person, or animal. With the support of others, we’re capable of affecting catalytic change.
For all the things we can’t control, for the poor odds that might strike us with tragedy, there is no comfort that can fix it, or magically make things right again. What we do have is compassion, love, and the shared experience of our friends and family. We still have the good memories we’ve lived, and all of the ways that life was more than fair to us in the past. Tragedy doesn’t negate what’s already been lived, but some things will never feel fair, or justified. We can only control how we respond to them, should we be blessed enough to live through them. May we live with the grace of such good odds.