The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. – Ecclesiastes 9:11.
We are told as children that everyone should be treated equally. Stories of those who fought to make things equal are celebrated. It is apparent to even the youngest school child that we don’t live in an equal world – otherwise why would Rev. Martin Luther King have struggled. So it is not the idea that equality is the status quo but that it could be the future default mode.
We are taught that because the world is equal hard work and talent will always rise to the top. Work hard in school, turn up on time, do your best. So an equal world does not mean that everyone will be the same – after all there can only be one President of the United States – but that everyone has a chance of success. It also should mean that those that do succeed deserve their status because of inherent talent and diligence.
Therefore, according to this theory, while we may not agree with those in influential positions, we cannot say they don’t deserve to be there. However, many of us have experienced people in power over us to be somewhat less than brilliant. I’m not talking about jealousy, but about the smart and talented being bossed by those less so.
The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, thought to be King Solomon, summed up this dilemma.
There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves. (1)
The current economic climate is causing many who have taken to heart the lesson that if you work hard at school and work things will eventually work out to consider whether the game is rigged against them. Is it really who you know rather than what you know that counts? Does influence trump innovation? Can you keep a good man or a good woman down?
In good times such morbid reflections are less cutting. Sure, we may question the rise of some in prosperous times, but in harder times like we find ourselves in today, we question our personal ability to succeed.
We are not the authors of our own destiny. This is both disturbing and liberating at the same time. All we can do is our best – the results are not predictable, but not necessarily our fault either. It also means we should hold success loosely.
Why if life is unequal do we aspire to live in a fair world? I believe it is because some part of us longs for a world different from the one we find ourselves in, a world of fairness and justice. A world where everyone has a fair shake. However, this ideal we cherish hits against the cold reality that our world is not that way. So what are the choices?
One, ignore the clues that the world is not fair and keep fighting. Eventually, this choice will lead to disillusion.
Two, embrace the unfairness, and the therefore meaningless and random nature of life. This is the approach taken by existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Realize that life has no point and try your best to come up with some individual meaning in the chaos. This approach leads to despair.
A third approach was taken by the ancient author of Ecclesiastes. He recognized along with Sartre that our physical lives are meaningless – he urged us to find enjoyment where possible – but he found consolation in the belief there was more to life than our earthly existence. He concluded that wrongs would be righted in the end. He wrote:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (2)
Sartre rejected belief in God as an easy escape from the overbearing meaningless of life, and that is a choice that we are obviously free to make. But if life is meaningless why do we have this desire for fairness and equality? Why do we see meaning in the struggle for equal rights?
The only way to make sense of our wish for equality in a world irreparably infested with all kinds of unfairness, is to accept there is a greater reality where fairness is more than an aspirational dream that we never quite reach. A world built on fairness and justice.