It Just Doesn't Seem Fair

Last week I was caught in a major traffic jam. A landslide had closed the interstate and the detour turned a one hour drive into a four hour epic. One hour of the journey was spent travelling one mile to exit the interstate onto the two lane rural road where I'd spend the next hour. The last hour was spent going over an icy mountain pass with trucks, campers and flatlanders who had no business being there without tire chains. Not a fun trip, but at least it became a learning experience.

As I sat in the first 'parking lot', I could feel myself start to lose it. Some people had exited the highway at an earlier exit and were now on the frontage road. Sitting and watching as they moved, while I didn't, felt so unfair. And I got angrier and angrier. I knew the area and could tell that the relatively few cars on the frontage road were getting equal access to the detour as the hundreds of cars and trucks trying to exit the interstate. Alone in the car, I had no one to complain to, no options for venting, no one to soothe me or help talk me down from the edge.

Just like in those cartoons of my youth, I had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other whispering advice into my ears. "Go ahead and be angry, scream, yell and pound the steering wheel," said the troublemaker on the left. The angelic voice on the right urged me to seize the opportunity to practice the mindfulness and meditative techniques that I'd been learning. I admit that I indulged the guy on the left and soon was aware that I didn't feel so good. Venting wasn't helping.

So I took a few, deep cleansing breaths. Then I took some more. It was obvious that I had plenty of time for self examination and might as well put it to good use. Exploring what was at the root of my almost uncontrollable anger, the childish whine "It's not fair" kept coming to the fore.  Why did those on the frontage road get to move when I didn't? And there was also frustration because I didn't think about exiting the highway in time to be in their position. Fair and Envy - two big ticket, four-letter words. I wanted what they had - to be in the better line. If I had been in the faster moving traffic while everyone else was creeping I certainly wouldn't be thinking about how fair is was that I had it better. I don't think that I'd have been as irate if we were all moving at the same slow pace, but if someone was going to have it better, I wanted to be in that group. Why do we always invoke 'it's not fair' when something bad happens to us, but not when something good happens, when we are on the good side of the unfairness?

Fair isn't the same thing as equal. There is an objective and a subjective nature of fairness. An eye for an eye, well, that is very objective fairness - exactly the same for each.  But in most cases, fairness is very subjective. What looks fair to me doesn't look at all fair to you. There is a technique for dividing a piece of cake between two children in which one child cuts the cake and the other gets to choose their piece. This process assumes the inherent inability to achieve objective fairness and results in something closer to subjective fairness. When I was sitting in traffic, if felt unfair that I had to sit the traffic while others got to move quicker on the frontage road. Those drivers probable thought that it was only fair that they finally got a break and got to get ahead to make up for all the other times when they were stuck. Maybe it was fair that was in the slow group to make up for some other time when I got a break.

So I changed the narrative that was running in my head. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I began to feel happy for the people who were on that frontage road moving along faster. Maybe they just lived a few miles down the road and they never were on the interstate in the first place. Maybe they had a need to get to where they were going ahead of me. Maybe they had a car full of fidgety or screaming kids and that mom really needed all the help she could get.

So I now have another valuable technique in my anger management toolbox - Rewriting the Narrative. We may not be able to control external factors in our life - like traffic jams - but we can control the thoughts in our head. It takes practice and effort, but by stepping back and examining the narratives I construct to explain my experiences I'm finding more happiness and less anger. I've continued to explore the technique and so far it is helping. I can choose to tell a story that focuses on the positive, even if that positive is occurring to someone else. I can reframe my experience in the narrative into one that is less negative and makes me less angry. The slowly moving cashier at the grocery store - maybe she hasn't had a break in a few hours and is tired and sore. I'm stuck behind a slow moving car on the freeway - maybe they are preventing me from getting a ticket or into an accident. It's been fun looking for opportunities to practice rewriting the narrative and a bit empowering to gain some more control over my thoughts, even if I still have little control over the world around me.