What Do We Deserve?

16685During a conversation at a recent party, a friend said there was a word she was tired of hearing lately: “deserve.” When someone asked whether it was because she was a teacher and her kids used that word, she said that wasn’t it. She said that most of her students are low-income children who qualify for free lunches, but who never talk about what they “deserve.” Meanwhile, she said that she sometimes takes part in community activities involving an upper-income crowd, and that in that group she’s more likely to hear young people talk about what they “deserve.”

One person in our conversation shook her head, saying nobody gets to decide for themselves what they deserve, except maybe when it comes to things like food or housing. I wasn’t sure I agreed, on either count. I like to believe I can decide for myself whether I deserve respect from other people, peace in my home, or a living wage. But none of it feels like a given. I believe I only deserve food and a roof if I contribute effort to earn them, unless that’s not possible. I believe I only deserve respect and peace if I offer them in return.

Others in our discussion voiced the perennial grievance that so many teens seem spoiled and uninterested in effort. That’s not my experience. While I have met kids like that, most of the kids I work with, from low-income to high, are concerned about the world, curious about people, and eager to discover their own possibilities. I don’t find this to be spectacularly less so or more so than when I was a teen.

A few years ago I worked with a homeless teen on a writing project. In my opinion, she did have a skewed idea of what people deserved. For example, she couldn’t understand why police arrested her boyfriend for stealing something from a motor home in an empty lot—car parts, I think. She explained that the goods were clearly stolen in the first place, the motor home appeared abandoned, and her boyfriend needed money. I was appalled. Still, she worked with me diligently on our project, regularly attended an unrelated writing class, and had taken a few college classes. A transitional living program provided her an apartment in a halfway house, so she didn’t have to pay full price. She never used the word “deserve” to describe her new home, only “grateful.”

Did she deserve a home? I believe she did. She had started a job to help her get back on her feet, and had plans to return to school. But in her compassion for others, she broke a house rule: she allowed other homeless kids to crash at her place. So she was sent back to the shelter. I believe she deserved that too. She couldn’t see a reason for following the rules, the potential for chaos. But I believe she learned from the experience, as many young people do.

I’m now coaching a teen writer whose family lives in a nice neighborhood. She’s writing a novel with an environmental message. She never talks about what she deserves. But I believe she does deserve support for her endeavor, just as she believes the earth and its inhabitants deserve her support.

Some years ago in Anchorage, Alaska, I read a news story about a city strike, in which a public employee said she believed she worked hard enough to deserve (I’m not sure she used that word, but it was implied) to go to a movie or order a pizza now and then. She received plenty of hate mail in public forums for daring to suggest that the public pay for her movie tickets. Yet some of the complainers surely worked at ordinary jobs that allowed them to go to the movies. I suppose their paychecks were provided by the private sector, not the public. Did they deserve movies and a pizza? Does anyone?

When I was growing up, my mom always told me, “The world doesn’t owe you a living.” That used to drive me up a wall, because what I heard her saying was, “You’re a spoiled brat.” At her memorial last year, I told people that it took me until my 30’s to give my forehead the V-8 smack and say, “Oh, right: the world doesn’t owe me a living!” I have to earn it. But how much do I have to do to earn it?

In Robert Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, space cowboy Lazarus Long gets ticked off at a man who suggests he deserves free air on the moon, even though everyone else pays.

Bill says, “Air to breathe is everybody’s right. The government should supply it.”

Long replies, “The city government does supply it, everywhere inside the city pressure. That’s what we just paid for.”

Long’s attitude haunts me whenever I hear someone say everyone “deserves” health care. I agree, but we all deserve many things that other people cannot give us. When it comes to government, to me the primary question isn’t about what we deserve, but whether the benefit to society outweighs the harm. Now that Obamacare is a reality, we have a chance to find out.

We might all agree that everyone deserves fairness or justice, but questions over what constitutes fairness or justice are at the core of today’s political divide. If someone works harder, does that person deserve more? If someone is more educated, is that person’s work more valuable? If people are wealthy, do they deserve protection from those who would take their money to improve the lives of others who haven’t earned it? If someone is poor, do they deserve protection from those who would deny them a living wage to fund the lifestyles of others who haven’t earned it?

Do any of us deserve anything, other than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Not happiness itself, just the pursuit. When do we deserve to use the word deserve?

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