When I was in 5th grade, I went to a performing arts school (they called it a “vanguard”). One of my arts was theatre. That year, the big production was Alice In Wonderland. I wanted to play the role of the Queen of Hearts. I auditioned for the role three times. Two were private auditions with just the other students in theatre. The last audition was semi-public consisted of the drama teacher/director asking myself and another young actress, (we’ll call her Truly Wacken), to repeat the same line, “OFF WITH HER HEAD!” over and over and over again. Each time, Truly Wacken got worse. I was steady and consistent. The spectators were in awe of my performance (not bragging, just true). The next day at school, before I even had time to warm up my sausage biscuit, I was informed that Truly Wacken had gotten the part. Although I received a main part, I was NOT going to be the Queen of Hearts. Anybody at school who had seen any of the auditions was in awe that Truly Wacken would ever be selected for that part. I wanted that part. I “deserved” that part. But, I didn’t get it. So I acted my ass off in the role I was assigned.
For several weeks, I’ve been thinking about this concept about what people do and don’t “deserve”. Most often, we’ll see the argument of merit in reference to poverty. Social justice writers will make posts and articles that contain “poor people deserve” somewhere in the first paragraph and go on to tell us that they “deserve” everything from fresh fruit to a cellphone to an iPad, also called “nice things.” Some articles even say “poor people deserve” luxuries (which seems to be subjective because I don’t consider a smartphone a “nice thing” or a “luxury” but many people do). The aim, as far as I can decipher, is to smack down the notion that those with more substantial financial resources shouldn’t be the only ones who get to experience the superfluous trappings of modern life.
I get it. As much as some assert that society hates poor people, I think that there’s also a belief that poverty is a sign of righteousness (which is probably why people who haven’t cracked a Bible since the Bicentennial seem to know a lot about how Jesus would react to poverty and capitalism). And who doesn’t “deserve” the best of the best of everything if not the righteous and suffering, right? There’s also that envy thing but that’s for another time.
But, I think the people who argue deservedness are actually arguing the wrong point.
First of all, if you ask the average person what they “deserve”, you’ll get mostly fanciful responses. 9 out of 10 people, no matter how many terrible things they’ve done, will say that they “deserve” to be millionaires with an ultra attractive spouse, Einstein-ish children, a palatial home and the ability to eat whatever they want and never gain weight. Basically, when we get into the game of what people “deserve”, we’ll be hard-pressed to get an honest assessment from anybody.
Secondly, it’s my belief that what someone “deserves” has less to do with what’s obvious and more to do with a set of intangible factors. Gandhi and Mother Teresa are examples of people who performed virtue but underneath their public persona, were involved in some highly questionable and even downright ghastly activities and philosophies. They aren’t the only ones. Do any of them really “deserve” to be lauded as they are?
Third, what people have or don’t have (or the capacity to have or not have), is based largely on a range of outside variables like their employment, their family size, their education, their habits, and other personal choices that we are told are nobody else’s business. Yes, some of us will have to work harder or longer for those things, but that’s an inescapable fact of life that doesn’t somehow qualify us for martyrdom.
Fourth, the notion of someone deserving something operates within a set of standards that I don’t think we, as a society, are clear about yet.
Maybe the better argument is what people need, not “deserve.” I postulate that by focusing on what we need, we are in a better position to take ownership of getting those needs met. Fixating on what we think we “deserve” is a waste of time, mainly because it implies that responsibility for our life is in someone else’s hands. For the die-hard advocates, deciding what those for whom you do your activism “deserve” isn’t going to benefit them the way advocating for their needs will. Similar to those driver’s education cars with breaks on both sides, the goal should be to address their immediate need and give people the tools they lack to access the things conducive to stability long-term.
I have to question a mindset that looks at someone who has a problem with procuring stable housing, feeding themselves, accessing clean water, and healthcare and decides to declare that that person “deserves” cable. In fact, I wonder if these deservedness advocates actually know people who are really poor. I feel confident in saying that someone who can be described as “poor” or at/below the poverty line is not worried about not being able to stand in line for 8 hours for the newest iteration of the iPhone.
It turns out that Truly Wacken’s mom was donating hundreds of dollars’ worth of costuming to the Drama department and that’s why she was chosen to play Queen of Hearts (she also kind of resembled the Queen of Hearts but that’s extraneous shade). She was going to get that part no matter what. Though 5th grade me was ticked off at having been passed over, I needed the experience of being the best and still not winning. I needed to learn that me just being wonderful (by my own evaluation or that of others) would not always be enough. Over 20 years later, I’m still alive to tell the tale.
Most of us have heard someone say that the world owes each of us nothing. Whether or not you agree with that doctrine personally, the fact remains that it’s not about what we “deserve” but about what we have; and what we choose to do with what we have. It takes far more than us thinking we “deserve” things for them to actually materialize. Poverty, suffering, loss, unfairness, trauma are not new phenomena. These things make us neither deserving or non-deserving. They merely confirm that we’re human.