How many times have I said those words this year, or in 2007 with my diagnosis? How many times do we all think those words as we haul yet another load of wet laundry out of the washer and into the dryer, or sit resignedly in the car for yet another commute to work, while we imagine that our next-door neighbor has it so much easier?
It really isn’t fair, is it? He gets to send his laundry out to be done by strangers. She has a nanny AND a lawn service. They get to go away on vacation after vacation, and she had cancer, sure, but no recurrence. There’s always someone who has it better than we do.
And yet, were any of us promised a perfect life?
Listen to this story: Once there was a man who needed some work done on his land. He went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work that day, for a fixed wage. When he came back to town later in the morning, he saw more men standing around and hired them as well, saying he would pay them a fair wage. At noon, he hired another group of men, and again three hours later.
At five o’clock, he ran into more men standing idle in the town, and he asked them, “Why have you been standing idle here all day?” “Because no one has hired us,” they said, so he sent them to join the other workers. That evening, when the work was done, his foreman paid the workers, starting with the last to be hired. They each received the daily wage that was promised to the first. Each group was paid, in order from last to first, and they each received the same wage.
Those who were first hired grumbled, saying, “The men who came last have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” The landowner replied, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the lastcomer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why should you be envious because I am generous?”
This story comes from the Bible, from Matthew, Chapter 20, and Jesus ends the story by saying, “Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.” It is a difficult reading, and one that I have always had trouble with. I was raised by parents who believed in a strict work ethic, and when I complained, my father intoned the maxim “to whom much is given, much is required.” We were lucky, they taught me, to have a house to live in, good food to eat, new clothes to wear, toys and books – so many, and so much, and so I must go forth into the world and give back more than I was given, to help others as I could. I have lived by that maxim, and I am teaching my children by that maxim, and they come back with the same rejoinder: “It’s not fair!”
And we struggle. But this parable, taught in church last week and again in my new prayer group (and thank God for them, because I feel already blessed by the experience and the people therein), teaches us something very interesting, and after a week of challenges, I think I finally understand it.
Life is given to each of us. We each get one shot at this sucker, and we are never really told that it will be fair. We each get one life, one daily wage, and that’s it. The guy next door gets one life to live. The mom down the street gets one too. No one ever promised us the same life, the same opportunities, the same blessings, or the same time to live. No one ever promised that. We are promised one opportunity, one life, and how we live it is between us and our Creator (I believe). There is no comparing.
And so when one of my little children comes to me after dinner and say, “But Mama, he had a fruit snack earlier today too! That’s not fair!” I am able to stand my ground and say, that’s right, it’s not fair between you two. You haven’t gotten exactly the same today. But you asked me for a fruit snack, and I gave it to you – did I not keep my word? Didn’t you get what you were promised? As they reluctantly agree, I remind them that that’s what we learned on Sunday, and that it doesn’t do any good to compare what one gets to his brother, because it may not be fair. But I will keep my word to each of them, and they will have what they need, and treats besides.
Now I need to take the passage to heart, and to stop raging on days when I don’t leave the bed (like yesterday, because of pain and great fatigue), “It’s not fair!” Because it’s not. That’s true. I can’t imagine a scenario where anyone would be happy to get cancer at 35, and think oh, yeah, well, that’s fair. That’s ridiculous! But I am coming to terms with it, and it’s easier when I stop comparing my life to others. I wasn’t promised the same life as my neighbors. I was promised a life.
As I sat and talked to Jessica this morning, I reminisced a bit – I was so lucky, to be able to go to college, to study, to move here to work for NASA, to then get my dream job – the job I was ready to work my whole life for – of overseeing the competitions for new space missions, and for being the scientist at NASA Headquarters responsible for a mission to outer space. I had that job for five years, and I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t imagine what would come next. I wanted children. I was so lucky that I was able to have them, my beautiful, wonderful, smart, and kind little boys. When I got ill, I begged and pleaded and prayed that I could get the oldest one settled in kindergarten, on his way to a life of loving school, and the littlest, then barely more than a newborn, in a preschool that he loved, with support from friends and teachers and the families of his friends were anything to happen to me then. I couldn’t imagine that I could live that long, but I prayed and I tried and I kept fighting. These dreams have come true. The boys are settled into a wonderful school, where they are loved, and supported, and safe, part of the school family, and they spend their days as they should, learning and playing, and when they come home, we are lucky enough to spend time together, with milk and cookies, then doing homework and practice on their letters (Widget wrote 14 thank-you notes over the last two days!) before they have a little tv and I rest again for that hour before Daddy comes home for dinner and we are all together again.
I have everything I ever wanted.
Am I sometimes envious of others, who may get forty-plus more years on this Earth than I? Sure. But I was never promised 80 years. I was promised a life. And boy, have I had a pretty incredible life.
I’m not done yet, but I am finally coming to understanding about the parable and about what I’ve been given, and I am again grateful, for God has kept his promises to me and I have lived the best way I know how. I have been truly blessed.