“Deserve” and Humility

reflection offered by Dave Baad, Head of School


I sit here in chapel most days listening to Reverend Heller ask you to wonder with her. It is a gift to have the time to sit and to wonder and to think. Let’s first pause and be grateful for that.

Today I would like to ask us to think, think and think some more about the word “deserve”.

So I start with a series of questions that mimic one of my frequent internal conversations: What do you think we deserve in life? What are we entitled to? How does feeling like we deserve something intersect with the virtue of humility? If humility is about thinking of others before ourselves, does that mean we should always defer to others? Does that mean that others always deserve the good things in life before us or instead of us? If that is the case, and we all become perfectly humble, with whom does this cycle of self-denial stop? As Jesus said in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, if we are to follow him, must we forfeit all material possessions? Wow, that’s a tall order. I am afraid that had Jesus said that to me, I would have walked away sad like the man in the Gospel.  Haven’t I worked hard and lived a reasonably virtuous life? Don’t I deserve a certain status, a certain place in society’s hierarchy? Don’t I deserve to be living in a beautiful house, driving an nice car, with a full belly each and every day? Shouldn’t I have a plum office and a reserved parking space? I mean, I am the Head of The Episcopal School of Dallas after all.

But then again what have I really done to deserve all that I have, particularly when there are many in this world who exist in crushing poverty while living just as or an even more hard-working and compassionate life than I am. How come I won the birth lottery? Did I “deserve” to grow up in the 1970’s and 80’s in a prosperous country at a time when being straight, white, and male was particularly advantageous. Did I “deserve” to have two loving parents, two great sisters, go to good schools, and be given social capital and opportunities that others weren’t? Frankly, I was one lucky bum. Sometimes when I feel like I have hit a home run with my life, I need to remember that I was born on third base. Well…. at least, I didn’t get picked off. I have that going for me. But really at the end of the day 99.9% of the world has never even heard of the Episcopal School of Dallas and could not care less that I am the Head of it.

The word “deserve” to me, after the word “love” may be one of the most complicated words in the English language. Its dictionary definition “to have the right to or to be worthy of” doesn’t do the word justice. Maybe it doesn’t even promote justice.

In raising my daughter, I would said to her in my tough love moments, “Kinza, we deserve nothing in life.” I wanted her to understand that privileges and honors were things that are earned, usually through hard work and sometimes through age – and that even with all that, that sometimes life just doesn’t give us what we  think we deserve. The secret of course I haven’t told her is that my father had said something similar to me thirty years earlier after my own attitude has revealed itself. In this life, you will find we often parent by example.

These moments with her (and my father’s with me) were instances in which the parent desperately wished to impart the message to his child that an entitled attitude – one in which the child believes that simply because of who they are, their station in life – that he/she can break the rules, perform acts that are demeaning to others, and deserve things they have not earned. I do believe that so much of our behavior we can classify as bad comes from the core belief inside of us that somehow, in that moment of decision, we believe that we are owed something or that the rules of life don’t apply to us; in short, we lack of humility. Perhaps at times we are blind to this virtue because we have been given so much – at other times  perhaps because we have not been given enough.

We all have our weak points in life. One of mine is a difficulty excusing behavior whose catalyst is the perpetrator’s sense that he or she is “better than”.They think they “deserve” to do something because in their mind they are – let’s fill in the blank: smarter, better looking, richer, cooler, more powerful, more virtuous even; this list goes on.

In crafting this reflection I considered reciting a list of bad behaviors and explicitly drawing a straight line from the act on the one hand to the catalyst on the other – mostly entitlement, the sense that we deserve something or deserve to be able to do something. However instead I would rather pause and allow each of us to think for a minute about our own lives and where we may have fallen into this trap. I know for me this list is also long.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of God will be theirs”

Now having said all this about what we deserve in life, entitlement, and humility, I do have one opposing point to make. I have found (and Ms. Phelps’ Friday reflection captured this nuance well) that preaching the Gospel of humility – the idea that we must always think about others and must earn all that we get – can have one unintended consequence. There are those of you out there who will misinterpret the message of humility to mean that YOU are “less than”. This can also lead to inappropriate and destructive, often self-destructive, behaviors. I have seen young people, in an effort to be “humble” refuse the spotlight or defer leadership. They limit their life goals because they have a sense that due to who they are, they could never achieve anything too grand or lofty. They become too deferential. They think, “people like me don’t get to do that.” Even worse I have seen young people involve themselves in relationships that are negative, manipulative, and even abusive because they believe they do not “deserve” to be treated with respect. In some ways this attitude frustrates me just as much as one of entitlement.

So, back to my first question: what do we deserve in life? While in my grumpier moments, I may say “you deserve nothing”, I do want to point out that while on the one hand we must remember that we are not “better than” and therefore should not act as if we deserve things- to have whatever we want and do whatever we want – we are also not “less than” either. All of us and all of the people around us are made in the image of a loving God. What we all deserve in this life – to both get and to give – is opportunity, equity and respect. My hope and prayer is that we should all have the inner strength to find that balance – that sweet spot between humility and confidence. Because of human imperfection, most of us sit either on the side of too much deference or on the side of too much entitlement.

So one last question – Which one are you? One hint – if you think you fall into one category, it often can mean you are actually in the other.

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