If someone gave you £100 after promising £50 you’d be delighted. If they gave you the same £100 after promising £200 you’d feel cheated.
Same £100 in both cases, but what you expect changes everything.
It brings to mind an old story that no one I know doesn’t feel is somehow unfair, until I came to realise I was looking at it from the wrong angle.
In the story a farmer goes out early in the day to hire labourers for his vineyard. (In Nigeria people still hire labourers for building this way: men and women looking for daily work with daily pay.) The farmer agrees with them to a denarius—the standard daily wage for a labourer in the Ancient Near East. Of course they’re happy to take it.
Through the day our farmer goes out to hire more men, right up until around 5 pm, an hour before the end of their working day. And to each he offers work with the promise of pay. (Unlike the first set, he doesn’t promise anything specific.)
Comes day’s end, he has his foreman line the men up to receive the day’s wages, from those who came last all the way to those who came first. He starts with those who came last, paying them a denarius. The labourers who showed up first are excited about this: if those guys are getting the same as they were promised, then they must be getting a good deal more!
Instead they get paid the same as the guys who came last.
They’re upset. It feels unfair. Like expecting £200 and getting only £100.
Except, what they got was precisely what they were promised. And not only that—they were happy with that promise. That they expected more—that was on them. And let’s be honest, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been in that place of being happy with what we had until we saw someone that had more, or better. But as the farmer says to the labourers:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.“
There’s wisdom in those words: there’s value in accepting what we’re given and moving on, without eyeing what others have and comparing it with what we got. I most recently shared this story with a teenager complaining about not getting enough attention, only to admit that the real issue was feeling like a sibling got more. The attention was adequate—the problem was the attention someone else was getting.
Happiness, it turns out, is just as much about what we choose to ignore as what we pay attention to.
There’s more, though, and the clue is in the final words in the story:
“I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
That it took me so long to get the import of those words is testament to how steeped I was in my view of things. But it’s so obvious now: the farmer was saying it was his choice to pay the last workers as much as the first—if anyone was being cheated, it was not the workers but he.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for our modern ideas of people getting what they deserve, but the point is precisely that not everything is about deserving. The theological term for that is grace: the goodness of God to humans just because. But even if you don’t buy into faith, you can at least accept that deserving isn’t at the root of everything that happens to us. Maybe it’s not at the root of anything, even.
At any rate, sometimes people get far more than we do despite seemingly doing far less, and you know what?
In the meantime, as the farmer said to the labourers, there’s value in us learning to enjoy the things we get and moving on. If we’re going to hang around, let it be to celebrate with others about what they get or share with them what we have—but not to question their right to it.
And then maybe we can stop focusing so much on positions and hierarchies.
“The last will be first, and the first last”.
You can read the story for yourself if you like.