The Tragedy of Entitlement

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a person? More and more, I’m convinced that the worst thing that can happen is for a person to believe that bad things happening entitle them to more than others.

It’s perhaps a natural instinct in all of us – unavoidable for our souls to desire help when we fall on bad times.  We want our lives, and especially the tragic moments of our lives, to have meaning. That’s why “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is still a best seller.  It’s why the story of Job in the Old Testament is still puzzled over by those who want to believe in a compassionate higher power. But, just because it’s natural to hope for help, doesn’t mean its good to think its owed to you.

It used to be that we asked ourselves “why me?” when tragedy struck.  Now it seems the question is “what can I get out of this?”  I know I’ve even been victim of this way of thinking.  When I recognize it, I try to change the direction of my thoughts. Personally, I see that as a major problem for anyone who desires to grow as a compassionate human being, and especially harmful for a society that might encourage that point of view.

Does our society encourage it?  Well, consider TV shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”  That show started from a well-meaning concept.  Roll the big fancy TV bus into a town, chose a family that’s had some hard times, and make their lives easier by making their home more livable. And, rather than just put them back on their feet, the show could up their rating and the “oohh” “ahh” factor by giving these forsaken folks a home even better than the one they had before.

There have been plenty of articles written about that particular show, which I realize is old news now.  My point is, it’s a large-scale example of a dangerous feeling that can exist in any soul.

Eastern philosophy teaches that karma may result in you being punished for something in your past – whether it was this life or another.  It’s not a far philosophical jump to then say something bad happening to us cleans our slate, or perhaps even earns us something good happening.  Or maybe that’s just a typically misconstrued western-interpretation of karma.

Here are two stories that weren’t broadcast on national television.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many cities saw an influx of people who had been rendered homeless by that tragedy of nature. Even a faraway small town in the northern state of Vermont had folks looking to resettle and rebuild. Coincidentally, the small apartment above my husband and my home was vacant, and one of the applicants was a woman who until recently had called the Crescent City her home.

When she told us this, we naturally had sympathy for her.  That sympathy may have even affected our decision to rent to her over another candidate, even if our better instincts told us she might not be a long-term renter since she had no roots in our area.  However, it quickly became apparent that she expected a little more than a bump on her application.  She not-so-casually brought up stories of other “refugees” who had been given the first month’s free rent and had their security waived because of what they went through. When we asked about her possible references and housing history, she didn’t provide names of people who could vouch for her as a good tenant, she named family and friends that could tell us more about the horrible experience she had gone through.

What this woman didn’t realize is that my father and his family had also lost their home and almost all of their possessions to Katrina.  Perhaps if I hadn’t had their example of quiet gratitude rather than hands-out expectation, I would have treated her as I’m sure she expected to be treated.

What was particularly irritating was that she seemed to be completely ignoring the fact that by our giving her free rent or furniture, or so on, we’d be making sacrifices.  There wasn’t a tone of “I would be so grateful if you would help me,” and definitely not “I will find a way to make it up to you,” it was “I’ve paid my dues by living through a hurricane, someone’s got to pay up, and you’re standing in front of me, so it might as well be you.”  She saw us as potential benefactors, as soulless as a TV corporation.  She didn’t care enough to even consider the fact that we would have troubles of our own, because what could our troubles be compared to hers.

That’s the problem. We’ve stopped having sympathy and compassion for another, and instead it becomes a mathematical type of equation to determine who gets to be the center of the pity party, and who gets the booty.  We don’t see each other as neighbors who should help each other out because of a sense of community.  We see each other as competitors in a good or bad luck lottery, and everybody’s got to put into the kitty because those are the rules.

There are a few other, more recent examples I am tempted to share, but I’m honestly afraid to.  I know it’s not nice to kick someone when they’re down.  And pointing out negative behavior in someone who is having a hard time does feel like kicking them while their down. Unfortunately, negative behavior has negative consequences.  Just ask any of the people who’ve lost their homes after ABC left town.

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