Do You Believe in Fairness?

At first, it ended tragically.

At a recent Operation Snowball* retreat, the teens wrote a skit entitled “Asking for Help.” In the first performance, one of the teens was struggling mightily with challenges life mercilessly hurled in her path. Despite her overwhelming heartbreak and pain, she never asked for help. Those around her, even if they noticed, did little in response to her subtle cries for love and support. Alone and confused, without the comfort of family and friends, her life ended in tragedy.

I was asked to facilitate the ensuing discussion, so I rose and asked the eighty or so teens what went wrong. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired. They knew she needed help and were saddened that those around her let her down. The failure brought some in the room to tears.

We talked about the many ways we can pick up on a cry for help. Obviously, when friends tell us they are in trouble, it’s easy. But often, cries are silent and subtle. “If we see unexpected changes in mood, it would be important to reach out,” one teen suggested. Another counseled “If a friend’s habits change unexpectedly, it is never a mistake to ask if they are okay.” I reminded them, even if we see a stranger who appears to be sad, we can always offer assistance or just a smile. “Remember, when someone needs support, you are not responsible to solve their problems. You only have to help get them to someone who can.”

The actors replayed the final moments of the skit. But this time, the struggling teen’s friends picked up on her sadness and anxiety and insisted she come with them to get help. That version was truly lifesaving.

As we discussed the second performance, we agreed it is difficult to ask for help, especially for teens. We recounted many reasons. “I’m the strong one. If my friends and family find out I am struggling…they’d be disappointed.” “My father is out of work and we have no insurance.” “I don’t want to be a burden on others.” “My parents are under a lot of stress because my uncle is dying from cancer.” “My sister is already in counseling. I can’t tell my parents I need it too.” “My mother is a single parent. She is stressed enough already.” The list is endless.

But then, one teen spoke up. “I think many people, especially teens, don’t ask for help because they don’t think they deserve it.” That nearly brought me to my knees.

An hour before the session began, as I reflected on the upcoming events, I recalled a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier. He asked if I believed in fairness. The question was startling, nevertheless, I assured him I did. “If you were at a dinner and the dessert tray had only two pieces of the pie you wanted, and one was clearly larger that the other, which would you take?” Since the question didn’t require deep contemplation. I told him I’d likely take the smaller one. “Always?” he pressed. This time I thought, but only for a moment. “Yes, probably.” “Ah,” he shot back, “then you really don’t believe in fairness, do you?”

I repeated that ancient exchange to the students and adults in front of me. I then recounted the many reasons we don’t ask for help. Is it possible, I asked, that, when life is dispensing love and support, we’re too willing to give others the larger slice? “It’s unreasonable,” I acknowledged, “to always be first in line, but, if we continually put ourselves last, perhaps we really don’t believe in fairness.”

We tell ourselves it is better to give than to receive. I believe that. But, if we believe in offering love, kindness, and generosity to all humans, then doesn’t the person we see every morning in the mirror, deserve to receive an equal share from us as well?

*Operation Snowball is a teen leadership program for which I am an adult volunteer.

2 thoughts on “Do You Believe in Fairness?”

  1. You got me there Roger, often times I look at the reasons why we do not seek out help, and self worth might be the biggest player here. However we look at the issue, other factors contribute to the reasoning behind this way of thinking about our “worth” and I ask if there maybe is another way to think about ourselves. Leaving behind the idea of “worth” when I believe, life itself cannot be measured in that way. Are we somehow and at some point in our lives learning to measure our self worth? And as I read through your story I couldn’t help to realize how many times I had been in situations where I should have asked for help, and reached out but didn’t. Why do we make ourselves believe that we are not worth it? What area of the mind takes over and makes us irrationally believe that we are not worth it. That voice however big or small is always there. Maybe reaching out has a “gone too far” connotation in our way of thinking, maybe we should talk the struggles sooner, maybe we should do it before they become too overwhelming and pile up, maybe before they get too confusing to share. Maybe being more honest with ourselves and others could help, as we go on with our days walking as the persona we would like to be perceived as. And that is how you got me with your story, wanting to believe in fairness but realizing that many times we are not fair with ourselves.


  2. Roger, a thought provoking session indeed with the students. Nearly everyone that I have ever known has suffered from low self esteem. I’ve concluded that sate of mind seems is the default human condition. For myself, I am blessed with more self awareness, due to the kindness and honesty of others within my family and circle of friends. Without the illumination of self awareness I doubt that there would be any respite from the illusion that I am “unworthy” by comparison with others.

    This week I had the privilege to spend some time with someone who potentially could become a friend. Mark is blind as a result of a suicide attempt at 19 years old. He seems to be in his early 30s and is living independently and productively. I heard his story in more detail, and shared some about my life with him. I think we have a lot in common. Are not our stories the lifelines that we can offer one another?

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