Friday, December 18, 2009

What we deserve

Last night I had to run out to pick up my thespian at play rehearsal, and when I came back one of my kids who'd stayed home was in a snit of hurt feelings. Another child had baked cookies, and though Child A had been allowed to have one, apparently it was offered with a begrudging, "Even though you don't deserve it..."

Sigh. I've long thought the whole concept of deserving things is problematic. It's so slippery. The "You deserve a break today" slogan from McDonald's used to irk me no end. What did I do to deserve a break? Work longer or harder than I would have liked? There are people in the world who suffer backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk but still don't have enough food to feed their children. I might want a break, I might like a break, and I might even need a break. Life is a lot easier when I get a break. But do I deserve one?

Every person deserves freedom, shelter, food and drink, education, health care, and human dignity. But beyond that the concept of deserving is a matter of judgment, and most of the time we're biased judges. We consider the fact that we put out some effort and think, "I deserve this. I earned it." We forget that we may be earning as much in an hour as an entire family in Indonesia makes in a month. We're scandalized by people who take what they don't deserve, yet if in the midst of daydreaming about that gorgeous cashmere sweater in the clothing catalog we were suddenly transported to the backstreets of Calcutta, we'd probably be just as scandalized by our own self-centeredness.

I'm all for cookies and cashmere sweaters, and for anything which brings joy and comfort and warmth to life. I suppose it's possible to become slightly more cookie-deserving than others if I bake the goodies myself, but that distinction is dwarfed by the fact that there's an equally-upstanding mother in a corner of Africa who can't ever give her kids cookies. In my wildest dreams I can't believe I deserve cookies more than she does, or that my kids deserve them more than hers.

This tells me that most of what I think I deserve I haven't (in any substantive sense) earned at all. I didn't do anything to merit being born in a wealthy nation at a time without war or pestilence raging at my door. I did nothing to deserve the DNA which gave me a good mind and good health. I have done what I could with what I was given, but the raw materials were given to me as a gift.

Perhaps none of us deserve cookies. We're simply blessed to be able to have them.

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