In the late 1970s, I worked for a hippie Peace Corps, constructing water systems in rural Guatemalan villages. I go back every few years to visit, particularly one village that I’ve as much as adopted. It was the sight of my greatest achievement and my greatest disgrace. I had found a solution to their water needs where no one else had, and I had a nasty accident in which I burnt my feet and one of their few good buildings, which we then had to rebuild.

Martine and me, 1979

The village is the poorest I’ve ever encountered. When I first arrived 25 years ago, it was three miles from the nearest road and two miles from a dirty river that was their sole source of water. Half the kids died before the age of five.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Last week I was back, with my fifteen-year-old daughter. It was a poignant visit, spent embracing old friends and catching up. The town still has no electricity, but the path in is now more roadlike, and the water system is holding up. The old midwife and corn-liquor bootlegger, Philipa (Shtapleep, in the native tongue), finally died. They’ve suffered through Guatemala’s 750 percent inflation and 150 percent population increase. The average daily income of the working men remains one dollar.

And yet the children following us joyously everywhere we went are the children of the children who followed me joyously twenty-five years ago, when I first arrived. The people are as decent, bright and beautiful as ever, a reminder of how much genius must go undiscovered, surrendered to a lack of nutrition and opportunity.

Saddest of all was that one of my old friends had shot and killed another of my old friends, and wounded still another in the arm, which then had to be amputated. They were fighting over water rights. The police investigated but gave up quickly. Remote village. Poorest of the poor.

Alberto, a victim of water politics

The victims were village council members who had come up with a way to augment the water systems we had built together: purchasing and piping in another spring. Working without outside aid, they asked all families to contribute 400 dollars each to the project. Some of the village’s 120 families refused, some arguing that they had helped already with the first systems and should be grandfathered in for all subsequent improvements. Unable to persuade these families to do their share, the village borrowed money to cover the shortfall at 120 percent interest.

For a year, the village continued water service to the families that refused to pay, but then turned off their water — from both the old system and the new, since they were combined. Tensions rose. One night, after a town meeting, a villager who refused to pay gunned down my friends and fled the village. He was never caught.

When we arrived, they were eager to argue it out for me, with both sides decrying the unfairness. The nonpayers thought it was unfair that they should be deprived of all water just because they wouldn’t pay for the improvements. The committee thought it was unfair that a few should get by without paying. Their definitions of fairness were entirely compatible. Their differences were over which considerations and events were admissible evidence to be weighed in assessing fairness.

The pursuit of fairness is a rational act — it’s about ratios, comparisons of some circumstances to others. We pay close attention to what gets weight against what. We dispute what should be included, and on which side of the ratio. Those who refused to pay treated fairness to the village as a nonissue — not something to be weighed. They concentrated solely on the unfairness to them. Sylvestre, now 60 years old, was my lead organizer on the original water project. His argument was stubbornly consistent. All he knew was that after all he had done for the community, it was unfair to expect him to pony up more now.

The village committee

The committee naturally focused on the community’s needs and how unfair it is that some refused to pay. Understandably, they weren’t keen to discuss ways Sylvestre and his allies might be allowed to pay less. I asked whether the issue is about differences in poverty. “No, we’re all very poor here,” they answered. “Everyone should pay the same.”

I listened closely and then tried to persuade Sylvestre to factor in other considerations. I asked him to propose a village law that would grandfather in anyone who had worked as hard as he had on past projects. He couldn’t do it. Or maybe he could but didn’t try.

I proposed to cover the shortfall caused by the families’ refusal to pay. The committee refused the money, saying it would set a bad precedent. I ended up siding with the committee against my old friend Sylvestre and his allies. I scolded him publicly for his unfairness.

That night, back in my cozy hotel room, I couldn’t sleep. I felt ashamed for scolding Sylvestre for being unfair. How could I do such a thing to a man who lived in a dirt-and-cane hut all his life, whose income came from leaving his family for a month at a time to earn a dollar a day on the plantations? How could I talk to him as though he were dishonorable and I was honorable? Me, with my made-easy life.

The simple answer is that no one present weighed my unfair advantages into their calculus of unfairness.

Even though the two sides disagreed about what belonged in the scale of justice, they shared an assumption that left the vast majority of the world out of it: the unfairness of me popping in unannounced every few years with a bucketful of cash, the unfairness of 120 percent interest rates, the unfairness of being born into one of the poorest towns in all of Guatemala. While I listened, I must have gleaned that I wasn’t an issue. I assessed that my diplomatic immunity would cover me.

In any dispute over fairness, we leave most of the world out of it. How could it be otherwise? Imagine trying to balance the scales of justice with every factor in the universe weighing in. It’s hard enough agreeing on the essential considerations. How, then, do we regard all the inadmissible evidence in a dispute? What do we do with the rest of the world when we’re fighting over the fairness of one particular part of it?

To the extent it enters our minds even just as a backdrop, the rest of the world is surprisingly often treated as fair, not unfair. My Guatemalan friends argued to restore fairness, not to create it from scratch. In their dispute, they implied a fair world, one from which their local patch had drifted. We all act as though local injustices are the exception, not the rule, as though unfairness is the anomaly to be corrected, brought in line with the world’s natural fairness.

Of course, really, our world is grossly unfair. We don’t correct little aberrations in an otherwise fair world; we strain to produce tiny ephemeral bubbles of fairness in an unfair world. Why, then, would we pretend the world is fair? Why would we imply it when we tell our children that everyone is born with different gifts but everyone has gifts? Why do our nonprofits evoke shock at injustices? Why does being treated unfairly make us feel like the exception, not the norm?

The reasons are many. To name a few, we do it out of kindness, and an attempt to build sturdier bubbles of fairness in our unfair world. To anyone with a heart, unfairness is unspeakably disappointing. Out of kindness to our family and friends, to the few people we gather into our bubbles of fairness, we protect them from the world’s unfairness as much as we can. We house them in the nicest neighborhoods we can afford, the ones that not only are comfortable in themselves but that also mask direct evidence of the world’s unfairness. We protect our children from news of the world’s unfairness as long as we can. At our best, we treat our partners and relatives and friends fairly, postponing the disappointment of unfairness as long as possible. “Until death do us part” can be read as, “If you will do the same for me, I will make the world as fair as possible to you, until death, the ultimate unfairness, renders me impotent to do so.”

And we motivate ourselves to build our bubbles sturdier by treating the task as one of restoration. Restoring natural fairness is both more crucial and more probable of success than eking out a fragile oasis of fairness in a world devoid of fairness.

To be sure, the story is more complicated than this. Child rearing largely entails titrating news of the world’s unfairness at the right pace. We do acknowledge and sometimes even relish regarding the field outside our bubbles as fundamentally unfair. We expose ourselves to injustice, savoring tragedies in print and on screen. Still, we act on the assumption that fairness is the norm far more than is warranted by reality.

This trip to Guatemala made me feel fortunate in many ways. One was having a village I call my own. Now that a few members have cell phones, I’ll be in touch more often. We’ll find a project to do together, and doing it will be an easy pleasure. The contrast between my life and theirs makes it very easy to give. I learn cultural anthropology in real time. I gain a radically different perspective on life. And I get to say, “I gave at the village.”

I’ve decided recently to stop taking all phone and canvass solicitations from nonprofit organizations. The decision makes me uncomfortable — and I’ve succumb a few times despite the policy. I decided to stop because I didn’t want the distraction, and because I noticed that the power of presence — someone stepping inside my bubble and declaring an injustice — was guiding me to make decisions inappropriately. The decisions weren’t particularly satisfying; they were impulse buys where, really, what I was buying was temporary relief through delusion, a fleeting and ridiculous sense that by giving what was asked, I was restoring universal fairness, a sense that after I signed my check and received thanks, the bubble cleared and the world was fair again. The nonprofits are no doubt good ones. I’ll give to some of them still. I just don’t like the insinuated interruption and my automaton reaction.

I do need to give, but I generally feel better about doing it through my adopted village. I know a few other people who have a village connection like mine. I think many more people would enjoy such a relationship. I imagine a matching service — a Peace Corps for grown-ups, a sister-village project in which a few friends in one country could befriend a village in another, poor, country.

I also wonder about a fund-raising campaign based on a more realistic framing of fairness, one that says, “The world on the whole is hopelessly unfair. You work your whole life to create a little bubble of fairness around you and your loved ones. You’d like to extend it, but there are limits. How do you want to do it? Maybe you could use the same talent and resources you use to build your local bubble to build a little satellite bubble as well. It won’t make the world fair, but at least it will be manageable.”

Why the World Is Unfair: A Simple Explanation

Physicists have a term for the way tiny discrepancies in concentrations of energy grow into big discrepancies. They call it broken symmetry. Think of balancing a broom by placing the tip of the handle on the upturned palm of your hand, and the symmetrical forces that keep it upright. When the symmetry breaks even slightly, the broom starts to fall, and, as it falls, it accelerates. A little break in the symmetry becomes a big one.

Imagine that you could go to a Web site where you could order up a universe designed to your specifications. Looking down the list, you see an option that there be broken symmetry. You think about it and say, “Yeah. I mean, better that than a completely homogenous expanse.” So you check that box.

Next, you see on the list an option to have positive-feedback loops — you know, those compound-interest effects Einstein supposedly said are the most impressive thing in our universe. Well, you figure, without positive-feedback loops, you’re not going to get much life. So you check that box, too.

An alert pops up on the screen just then that says, “Caution: The combination of broken symmetry and positive feedback creates inescapable unfairness, with more energy and life in some places than in others. Do you accept that?”
You say, “Damn.” You pause to think about whether it’s worth it. But what’s the alternative? A boring, homogenous expanse. Not much of an option, really.

But you hate unfairness. Hopefully, though, the pockets of concentrated energy and life will do what they can to create pockets of fairness in this intrinsically unfair universe.

You sigh, disappointed. Then you click the Accept button.

A relevant Randy Newman song