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Tuesday 13 September 2011

Do I Deserve This? Really?

Australia. Can I get some world peace?
It seems that on a weekly basis I am informed of the reason that I should avail myself of one luxury product or another.

“Because you deserve it.”

Really?  How do they know?

Why do I deserve first class?  A cheeseburger? A day at the spa?  Or a hundred other products and services?

Is it because I had the good fortune to be born in a wealthy culture?  Because I have experienced remarkably good luck throughout my life?  Because I have worked so much harder than people who labour 16 hours a day in rice fields?

How is it that consuming vastly more than my fair share of the world’s resources, living in a wasteful culture, and having available to me luxuries that the wealthiest of people in the past could never have dreamed of somehow imbues me with the right to consume even more?

The idea that I deserve these things is a statement about justice.  But of course it’s really a means of getting past any sense of complacent sufficiency I may feel, so that I will open my wallet.

After all, if I am deserving of the treat being advertised and do not get it, now that would be a true injustice.  Wouldn’t it?

So... Is this just another tiresome rant about advertising?

Well, yes.  Partly.  But the terminology of advertising has seeped into the culture.  I hear people say “Hey, I deserve that” all the time.

What’s the impact of this idea?

If I deserve a nice home, an extra serving of ice cream, a day in the country, then there is nothing for me to feel grateful about.  Receiving these … these … well, we used to call them blessings, is nothing more than my right.

When we build such “rights” into our expectations for the future, they cease to be treats.  They are elements of the baseline of our experience, and their presence can pass without notice.  If every time we look in the cutlery drawer we find a needed spoon, we do not feel we have received anything significant.  If unreliable room-mates make such a discovery chancy, we are more likely to murmer, “Oh, thank you, a spoon” and feel that our day has been made a little bit brighter.

Our sense of gratitude, in other words, depends not on what we receive, but on what we expect.  If we grow up expecting to live in a mansion with servants, then a privileged servant-free life in a pleasantly-located condo will feel like penury rather than what it is: a better standard of living than that experienced by the vast majority of people who have ever lived.

If I justify every indulgence by telling myself that I deserve it, which is surely a lie, then I inoculate myself against much of the psychological lift that the indulgence is likely to provide.

I’m not generally a fan of the alternative approach either, which says that we are worthless chaff undeserving of anything but the fires of eternal damnation for our own fairly venal sins and those of alleged leaf-clad ancestors.

By mentioning the ideas of gratitude or blessings, I run the risk of necessitating an entity to whom one is grateful.  A bless-or.  Such an entity is possible, I suppose, but not essential to feel grateful or blessed.

The key point is where we place our minds.  If we expect that the flat-screen television, supportive partner, or peaceful nation that we had yesterday will still be there when we awaken, and believe that they are nothing more than we deserve, then we will not feel the impact of their presence.

We will only notice them when they are gone.

Not everyone is the same.  But although there have been some trials in my life, I have already been the beneficiary of more events, people, and resources than I can in any way claim to deserve.  If I deserved any storehouse of treasures, I have surely exhausted it by now.

So in order to experience the full flavour of the chocolate, the luxury of driving through the Rockies, the satisfaction of receiving a cheque in the mail, or the warmth of my friends, I need to acknowledge the truth.

I am receiving this.  It is a benefit.  An extra.  It is worth thanking life for.  It is not a payoff in kind for something I have done.

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