How to live in an unjust world (The answer involves Angry Birds)

My stepdad asked my mom if I’m depressed. Perhaps jokingly. He thought I’d been writing about a lot of hard stuff lately.

I don’t feel depressed. But I have been feeling a bone-deep sensitivity. And it’s had me thinking about fairness. I’ve heard that the happiest people understand that life is not fair. That life isn’t even about fairness.

I’ve never understood this, and I fear it will be my undoing, that I’ll become an angry, cynical old woman. Because while I understand logically that I cannot change the world, that I cannot make life fair, my heart does not. My heart aches, too much I think, when a child dies of cancer. Can a heart ache too much over this? Maybe not. Maybe I’m just envious that while others can redirect their thinking, can avoid thinking about awful things that happen to people they don’t know, I have a hard time with it. Perseverating, my mom used to call it while I was growing up. “Don’t perseverate,” she’d tell me. But perseverate is what I do, and it’s part of what helps me write, it’s part of the same urge that makes me want to write in the first place—to document, to bear witness. I think about things—I think them through until I can almost feel what it’s like to be that other person, to be a mother watching her son die.

It’s gotten worse, much worse, since I had children. Heartaches over injustices last longer, penetrate deeper. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all that is wrong with the world. I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to hate the world, to hate the people who make it this way, who don’t join in the effort to make it a better place.

I used to be a bright-eyed idealist. Now I’m a beaten and battered idealist. Note—still an idealist. I’m often as passionate about all that is great. But the world is crushing. Simply crushing. And I’ve got to figure out a way to hold myself up.

Come hell or high water, I will have a hopeful post for you next time.

***I wrote the above draft, then closed my computer and went to pick up my son from school. I brought him home, we played, and then I wrote this, which is your promised hopeful post. Warning: It involves various “I’m thankful” phrases:

I am thankful that I hear my two children playing upstairs right now. My son is directing my daughter on how to play with his Angry Bird stuffed animals.

I am thankful we just shared lunch together and grouped my son’s dinosaurs by time period (his idea). I got to do that—to sit, in the middle of a Monday, on a soft couch in our cozy house and play dinosaurs with my son while my daughter, who is fighting a cold, snuggled against me with her blanket. The magic of being an at-home mom.

I am thankful for my husband, who still writes me notes.

I am thankful for winter in all its ferocity this year, for the moon on the snow last night, and the bare branches against the sky.

I am thankful we do not have to travel for the holidays. We get to wake up Christmas morning with our children; they’ll wait on the stairs while I make coffee first (I learned to prioritize from my mother). They’ll beg and plead and when I have a hot cup in one hand and my video camera in the other, I’ll say, “Okay, sweeties. It’s time,” and they’ll come tripping down the stairs to the Christmas tree.

I am thankful that my son just walked downstairs with two round Angry Birds stuffed under his shirt and said, “Look at me! I have fat nipples!”

There is nothing—nothing—like six-year-old humor to lighten things up.

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22 thoughts on “How to live in an unjust world (The answer involves Angry Birds)

  1. HA!! I love it! What’s with boys and their obsession with human body parts!?! I am thankful that you were in my kindergarten class 32…..um I mean 15 years ago. 😉

  2. Your deep empathy is something I totally connect with. And it’s the giving back that pulls me through – from little daily kindnesses (making a stranger smile) to larger work (charity) that reaps rewards not only for others, but myself too –big time!
    Somehow, just knowing that I am putting it out there (versus what I cannot control) has to be enough. May you find peace and joy ahead. All the best.

    • It has to be enough, somehow–yes.
      I donate money, I write, but I need to work more, I need to spend more time actively helping others and seeing and feeling the benefits. Thanks so much for reading.

  3. They’re right, Jessica. Those who understand that life isn’t fair, but go ahead and live it anyway are the happiest. Note I didn’t say succumb to it, accept it as acceptable or even actively participate in it. Life or the world owes you or me absolutely nothing. It is however like the story of the person having come upon thousands of beached starfish and tossing them one by one back in the sea. When someone tells him he can’t make a dent in saving the vast majority of them, he just smiles, picks one up and tosses it back in the water and says, “made a difference to that one”.

    The ocean or the storm didn’t have anything against all those starfish when it tossed them on the beach. It just was. So you live your life knowing that the ocean or storms will always do what they do, and you get to react accordingly. It is what it is and you can react positively. Or not. But you get to have that choice.

    I make sure I go through life as much as possible treating the cooks and the janitors the same as I do a CEO or the President. I walk through hospital halls, as I did this morning, and say hello to everyone who made eye contact with me. I cannot change the world, but for all I know I had an effect one person, or even maybe them all, for all I know. Ones who were scared by what a test might show, one who was on his way to see his newborn baby and was scared for them and the world they were entering, yet saw a sliver of acceptance by a stranger, or the one hoping her chemo was working. You just have no clue your affect on people, but I do know that whatever I did for those few wasn’t going to harm them.

    I wish you well. As I do all who love you, the ones you love and all the others that have the opportunity to be graced by you. Mark

    • Mark, thank you so much. I’ve read your comment several times. Thank you for reminding me of the starfish story–it’s one of my favorites. It’s how I try to live, too. It’s just these darker periods I have a hard time with; I suppose everyone does in some way. It’s scary, the depth of feeling.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment and to help. I appreciate it greatly.

  4. I love your perseverating…..wouldn’t have it any other way!! I love your sensitivity, fairness and idealism. I love you!! Great blog.

  5. I wake up some nights bleeding internally with empathy for the ills of the world, the abuse of children and animals foremost. It’s about detachment, a true service, the ability to love wholly, completely, but not identify with the problems, which reduces one to a state of helplessness and negativity. I have found that making a deliberate and conscious decision to shift my focus to the good the true and the beautiful (in a higher sense) changes the equation. Exactly what you did by deciding to be thankful.

    • Yes, yes yes. Bleeding internally. It’s how I feel right now and at the same time, I’m sheepish for feeling this way. I didn’t even know the boy. But, oh I can imagine. I can read her words and imagine too well. Then I have to extract that imagination from my brain or, as you say, I feel utterly helpless.

  6. I agree with Mark ‘s articulate musings. Many of us are still idealists at this later stage of life. We’re not beaten and battered, we just persevere and try to make things better, one small act at a time. Don’t underestimate those wonderful life-shaping everyday acts you shared in your “hopeful post”, which will create another generation of idealists. Be thankful you have the opportunity to have that impact.

  7. I could’ve been reading about myself twenty years ago, down to the Christmas routine and the magic of being a stay home mom. I’m a long-time perseverator too — I just didn’t have a word for it until now. But it truly is part of what helps me, makes me want to write. Not just to bear witness but also to make sense of the things I witness, and to think things through until I can almost feel… Although I am always envious that others can redirect their thinking, I’m also very glad I’m a perseverator because I want to feel those things and to help other people understand. To me we have a gift, Jess, and so I DO see this post as very hopeful. No life isn’t fair, but we need more understanding and “deep feelers” in the world, and so I’m eagerly looking forward to your book.

  8. Well, Miss Jess …. we are, once again, cut from the same cloth. And I honestly think a lot of this is in our DNA. What makes some born with the empathy gene (which is, really, what I think is at the root of your post) and others not? My sister and I come from the same gene pool, but I am like you. She is not. The world and its problems barely enter her conscious mind. I remember when I was only 11 years old and watched “The Champ.” I was so hysterical in tears – because, like you, I was able to BECOME the character and put myself in his place – my parents didn’t know what to do with me. That’s when I knew I was different. More feeling, more observant, maybe. And yes, many times, being more prone to being “bothered” by the world and the ugliness that is often in it. In college, I remember being envious of people who didn’t bat an eyelash at anything outside of themselves or their small sphere of influence. As they say, “Ignorance is bliss.” But you know what? I think that over-feeling, that perseverating, is a gift. Perseverators look deeply at the world around them. It’s what distinguishes good writers from bad, also, in my opinion. As the others said, I guess it’s all about balance: balancing out our understanding of the bad and making sure we stop to notice all the good.

    • Yes – I like saying the answer is always somewhere in the middle, and it applies to this too. I was the same as you — movies, especially in my teen years, killed me. Steel Magnolias, Dances with Wolves, Ghost…forget it. I was a mess. Music, books…so many triggers. I actually stepped away from feeling too much in my college years. Stopped reading so much or watching sad movies. Stopped even really listening to music. I think I’ve come back to center.

  9. Jess- you have done it again- taken thoughts right out of my head and said them better than I ever could have. I have been feeling the same way, and it has gotten so much more intense since I had Kellan. I also find myself angry that I often times let the little things get to me (running late for work in the morning, the kids being too loud, the house is a mess, etc…) when there are others facing unimaginable challenges and hardships. Every time I think about those babies taken in the Sandy Hook tragedy I cry. Life is far from fair.

    • Oh, me too. And I wonder how much guilt is too much. I think it can serve as a good reminder to pay attention to what is important. It can also just pile on and make all of us feel so bad we’re helpless. I’m too prone to feeling guilty. But it has served me well because in these last few months especially, as I’ve spent more quality time with the kids, I feel less guilt. And, actually, it’s not necessarily more time, but more focused time.

  10. Just came across this quote, and thought it so appropriate to leave here…
    “Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. ”

    — Louise Erdrich, is an American writer of novels, poetry, and children’s books featuring Native American characters and settings.

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