Unintended Consequences of Being Fair

As a freshman in college, I didn’t have the luxury of choosing a friend as a roommate. I had to chance it with the luck of the draw. I felt I was somewhat of an outcast, and was prepared for the worst. But I got the best.

Carrie was everything I was not. We weren’t super popular, but she got along well with others. I was a quiet egghead. She was an extrovert. She knew lots of people from her high school. She was non-judgmental. She was fun. She accepted me for who I was. We wore the same size and she had good taste in clothes (which I did not). She was always willing to share. Mostly, she was happy. I was very grateful having her as my roommate.

We were in a freshman dorm. The other dorms for upperclassmen let you “squat” with your friends and roommates, but after the freshman year, there was a lottery for next year’s room. I studied all the dorms and decided where we should go. But by the time our number came up, there were no double rooms left. We would have to split up. I was devastated. I could go anywhere and be happy, as long as I had my beloved roommate. Besides, there were many upperclassmen squatting on half of a single room. Couldn’t some of them be combined so that we could be together. It wasn’t fair.

I complained to the Housing Office. I was in tears. The woman behind the desk was loving and caring, and promised she would try to do something about it. I had hope.

I was elated when we were told a few days later that upperclassmen were being asked to move in with each other so that we could be roommates. I knew exactly which room I wanted and ran over and put our names on it! How exciting!

But my excitement was tempered when later that day, in the campus dining hall, I overhead a Junior in tears. She had been with her suitemates her entire career at school, and was now being told that she had to move out since her roommate was graduating. She had really wanted to spend her Senior year with them. There were no beds available in her suite, or even on the floor. She was going to have to start over.

I felt even worse when I realized that it was HER room that I had taken. And it began to sink in that we might not be welcome into the suite, knowing we had kicked out this woman. I felt two inches tall. But I was young and stupid.  The suite would never know I was the one who complained and got the policy changed. And at least I would be with Carrie.

That summer, I felt worse and worse. And then the letter came. The college that I had REALLY wanted to go to my whole life sent me a letter. They wanted me as a transfer student. I realized that deep down, this is what I wanted for my life. So I left and transferred to the other school.

Now poor Carrie was left alone in the new suite. She was “assigned” a new roommate, but not the girl that had been kicked out of the room. Carrie got along with the new girl, but they didn’t click as we had. I don’t know if that made me happy or sad. Carrie didn’t particularly like the suitemates, but they were all Seniors and she was a Sophomore, so that would be normal. She wasn’t unhappy, but certainly not as happy as if she had been put in a situation where the cliques had not previously formed.

So selfish me. I put out my beloved Carrie. I put out the girl her Senior year who had done nothing wrong. I put out the entire suite of her friends. All were worse off because of my selfish decision. And I didn’t even stay around to face the music. I knew when I went in to complain that there was a chance I wouldn’t be there the following year. I was young. I was stupid. And I was only thinking of my needs.

Of course, I never did anything to make it better. But I have reflected on it many times.

Selfishness, I came to realize, is what is “fair” to you.

What have I learned?

I have pondered the meaning of the word “fair” many times, and have come to realize that “fair” doesn’t exist. Because what is “fair” to one person is NOT “fair” to someone else.

There are two identical slices of pie and two people. Is it fair to give each person one? What if one person is twice the size? What if one is an adult and one is a two year old? Would you slice off part of one to give the adult more?

What if one size is bigger than the other? How do you determine who gets the larger piece? If one person is much larger than the other, do you give the larger one to the one with the bigger appetite or the one who “needs” it more?

Is it fair to give large amounts of food to someone who weighs 400 pounds? Is it fair to ask someone who works hard to pay for things for those who refuse to work? If you follow the rules, is it fair for you to have to pay the consequences of those who don’t? Where does fair end and compassion begin?

There are people who major in Ethics and Morality and Philosophy who sit around and discuss those things and get paid for it. (I don’t think that is fair.) As for me, I do my best to balance fairness and compassion. I try to see the other person’s side of any situation, particularly if I feel strongly about it. Because I know strong feelings can cloud your thinking. I try to look at the consequences of any decision from every person’s point of view.