I write a lot about bullies. And unfortunately, there are times when bullies win. It’s unfair. It’s tragic. But it’s true. As we all know, life isn’t fair. As parents and educators, it’s something we have to teach our children. But how do we teach this without compromising their personal optimism and enthusiasm for the future? Saying “life isn’t fair” isn’t enough.

My daughter is in college now, but once upon a time she was a young bullied girl. In her case, the bullies didn’t win. They weren’t picked as the most popular kids in school. They didn’t win student council president. They didn’t load up on academic trophies. (My kid did, though. Just sayin.) But if they had, and she was forced to witness her tormentors getting undeserved love and glory, I imagine I’d say something like this:

Life isn’t always fair, which is why it’s important to do whatever you can to make it that way. Here’s the catch, though. You won’t win. It’s weird to have a grown-up say that, isn’t it? We’re supposed to be all positive and stuff, like, ‘You can be anything you want to be!’ And that’s true. But when it comes to life and fairness, it will never balance out. That’s not cynicism. It’s the truth. We are human beings. And human beings are deeply flawed. The more human beings you get involved in something, the more flawed and unjust that something will become. But you can’t weed out the baddies and ship them off to Australia. (Australia would get really mad at you). And you don’t want to anyway, because life would be boring if we were all the same, right? So, know this: Life is sometimes fair. And sometimes it isn’t. And it will always be that way.

Sometimes your bully gets a new car for Christmas and you have to drive your dad’s 1999 Toyota Corolla. Sometimes your bully is elected student class president. Sometimes fifteen people ask your bully to prom. Sometimes your bully calls you a racial slur and gets carried off the football field on everyone’s shoulders two hours later. Sometimes your bully wins.

I know what you’re thinking. If the bully gets the new car and the dates and the student council presidency and gets carried off the field, what’s the point of being a nice person? I may as well just be a bully too. Or stop caring.

What’s the point?

Virgil, one of the characters in Hello, Universe, asks the same question. And Ruby, his wise and magical advisor, says: Of all the questions you ever ask, never ask what’s the point?

Because the point is this:

  • When your bully is carried off the football field, you can look at the student next to you and hold hands. You can say, “This sucks, doesn’t it? But it could be worse. We could be one of the people cheering. I would rather recognize injustice and have my feet on the grass.” That’s called integrity.
  • When you lose your student coucil election to your bully, you might wonder what you did wrong. Instead, ask: What will I do next?
  • When your bully is surrounded by admirers, it’s reasonable to look in the mirror and say: I’ve been a nice and decent person. Where are my admirers? But remember this: Some people need admirers to lift them up because they can’t stand on their own two legs. It’s better to have one beautiful person in your corner than 100 admirers in your audience. Especially if that beautiful person is you.

Embrace humility, because empathy doesn’t exist without it. Find your voice and speak against injustice. Don’t stand by, stand up. Just because life isn’t fair doesn’t mean you can’t be.