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Opinion: Some people never live to enjoy fairness

I got a call from a friend this week to tell me that one of his employees was in the hospital and was not going to survive the next couple of days. He passed away on Thursday.

The employee, Jesús, was 36 years old – a couple years older than me – and had been battling cancer for the last 2 months. He didn’t last long.

Jesús left behind two children, ages 13 and 7, and had been their sole caretaker for a while now. Jesús does not have family in the United States, and barring some miracle, his children will end up in the foster care system.

I met Jesús several times when my friend’s company did some work for me. I got to know him a little bit and see firsthand what a good person he was, how hard he worked, and how much my friend admired and appreciated him.

I can still see his sheepish smile and hear his good natured humor. Life, sometimes, is just not fair.

I’ve thought a lot in the last few months about fairness and privilege.

A few weeks ago, while at home for lunch, a door-to-door salesman came by my house to try and sell me a subscription to his food delivery service.

Gregory was middle aged, Black, and frankly, not in great shape. His hair was a mess and he was missing a few teeth. But he was dressed in a suit and tie, had clearly rehearsed and mastered his sales pitch and was invested in the success of his startup company.

We talked for a bit about the company, how he got started, and what he was looking to achieve. He explained that his goal was to recruit 12 new customers a day.

It was hot outside, and I asked him if he’d like a glass of water. He happily accepted – apparently, none of my neighbors had offered.

As he drank the water and we continued to talk, he looked around at my house, at the car sitting in my driveway, and asked me a question.

“Do you have any advice for me? How do I achieve what you have?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I was maybe 10 years his junior and it’s an awkward question anyways, though I didn’t mind him asking. I imagine he’d had a lot of doors shut in his face and probably appreciated someone engaging in conversation with him.

I wasn’t about to tell this man, who was working his butt off in the hot Georgia sun and had clearly experienced obstacles in life I could only imagine, that he just needed to work hard.

Clearly, he works hard, and so do I, but we have landed in two entirely different positions.

I had the benefit of growing up in a safe community, with great schools, in a well off family. My parents could afford to send me to college and support me so that I didn’t graduate with a mountain of student debt. He didn’t have any of that.

How can anyone say that that has not made all the difference?

I think part of the conversation today about fairness and privilege is that it is perceived by some to be an accusation that they haven’t earned what they have in life.

I have worked hard for and earned most of what I’ve received as a consequence of my education and employment. I believe that. But I also believe that I got a head start before I set foot in a classroom or in a workplace that has nothing to do with what I deserve.

And it’s a head start that Jesús or Gregory were not given.

Two things can be true at once: Some of us receive a head start and make the most of it. Others do not, and have to play catchup.

Defending the merits of our own successes, and who deserves what, is a distraction from what should be the ultimate goal: to figure out how we can pay it forward and give good people like Gregory and Jesús a head start, too.

Reach Hans Appen at 770-847-7205. Follow him on Twitter @hansappen.