You Can't Always Get What You Want

Betsy Hart
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Posted: Mar 08, 2007 1:59 PM

"It's not fair."

My kids have, for some reason, been all over that one more than usual lately. It's not fair they have so much homework, it's not fair they don't get to play more video games, it's not fair that so-and-so down the street gets a ski trip and they don't, it's not fair that one child got four more seconds of "tuck-in" time than another.

Yes, when I hear those words I try to do a quick review of whether or not there is something grossly out of whack. Do I really "never" tuck one child in as long as another? Maybe one child does need a little more attention than he or she is getting.

But, I've never heard of a child arguing "it's not fair" because he or she is actually interested in matters of objective justice. Generally speaking, when a child says "it's not fair" it means, "I want what I want right now." And so for the most part I respond with those great words of my dear mom, who would tell me when I whined in the same way: "Well, life isn't fair." Or, to add a little something from the Rolling Stones, I sometimes will sing to my kids, "You can't always get what you want ...," which they really can't stand.

But more and more lately, I've found myself "agreeing" with my kids. As in: "You are so right, life isn't fair. It's so unfair that you have so many great things others don't, like you are healthy and live in a good home, you're surrounded by family who love you and you have a devoted mom who gets to work from home, you live in a free country and ... " it's about at that point they cut me off with, "OK, Mom. OK, Mom. We get it."

I wonder: Do they?

Maybe the question really is: Do I myself "get it"? The concept of the "hedonic treadmill," as psychologists call it, fascinates me. Actually, I worry it might define me. It's the phenomenon where getting more "stuff" makes you want more "stuff," but still you are never quite satisfied.

Charles Dickens saw a version of this more than a century ago. "'My other piece of advice, Copperfield,' said Mr. Micawber, 'you know. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19, 19 and six, result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pounds ought and six, result misery.' " (From "David Copperfield.")

Now that's insight.

So, why is it just so darn hard for us to be grateful for and content with what we have right now and, even more _ to be grateful for the good things that come to others when they don't come to us, too? It's not just about money, but almost any good thing. I think, ultimately, "it's not fair" is really about "I don't want that person over there to get a good thing unless I get it, too _ and preferably with a little more."

I suppose it's human nature, and can manifest itself in some way wherever, and in whatever conditions, we live. It's certainly at the base of the culture of "victimology" we have in the West in spite of our prosperity and ease of life.

Well, I can't fix any of that. But I can more consistently and energetically encourage my children, and myself, to be so grateful for the incredibly good gifts we have, and not just material things, but gifts like love, and laughter, and especially the amazing gift of life itself. To be grateful for today.

The Apostle Paul wrote that he had learned to be content in need and in plenty. The physical circumstances of his world were not the source of his joy _ and that is exactly why he had abundant joy.

Lately I'm just becoming more mindful of working to build this sense into my kids and myself. And yes, all the while I look forward to the great day when my children are parents and I get to hear them responding to their own little ones: "Well, life isn't fair!"