I just caught up on a story of a local woman’s effort to go from squatter to homeowner. Because she didn’t “climb the property ladder” in a traditional way, many online commentators have questioned her worthiness. The hand-wringing and outright hate surrounding this woman exemplify the problem of deserving.
A sweet house. Who deserves this dessert? (Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar)
Why is a person who has overcome a series of personal hardships and carved out her own path to housing less deserving than a person who obtains a mortgage any other way? Why does this particular story grate against commonly held notions of deserving?
Perhaps it is because deserving is a delusion which is irrelevant at best and maddening at worst.
While it’s a pleasure to see friends enjoying the fruits of their labor and courage, I have come to see the whole idea of deserving as a source of misery. I congratulate my friends and even myself for our successes. Still I hesitate to say, “You deserve it.” or “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer gal.” Because it could have happened to a nicer gal, or a smarter guy, or a more industrious person. Or it could have happened to some jerk. That truth is hard to face.
Deserving appears to shield us from the random winds of an uncaring universe. But like many shields, it is also a blinder. It obscures the fact that bad things happen to hard-working people and that sometimes we just get lucky.
Luck does favor the prepared. Persistent effort tends to pay off. That’s why we don’t need to believe that people deserve the benefits of their hard-won skills in order to foster a healthy work ethic. Instead, it’s better to point out that work and resilience improve the odds of success and to leave questions of worthiness aside.
When our talent goes unnoticed and sweat is followed by pain and failure, we may wonder if we deserve the bad times. For there is no deserving without undeserving. Usually, other people are undeserving while we are unlucky. We shake our fist at heaven for giving us a raw deal, or steel ourselves by singing “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby” as we suffer and cry for a long, long time. But how long will you suffer before you see yourself as one of the undeserving losers? How long before you start hating others who appear to get all the goodies for nothing? To avoid the pits of despair and bitterness, it’s best to forget about deserving and undeserving.
You deserve a break.
Deserving makes overindulgence easier to justify. The creative team who came up with the fast food slogan “You deserve a break today” understood our desire to even out life’s balance sheet of deserving by stuffing our faces. Too much of these rewards turn out to be a punishment to your body. Your bank account can take a hit, too, if you compensate for misfortune with retail therapy. Deserving interferes with our ability to care for ourselves as it dampens our compassion for others.
Too often, our ideas about worthiness are rooted in biases that have nothing to do with meaningful achievement. For instance, a squatter doesn’t deserve to become a homeowner because she occupied a house without first complying with the rules of property. The work she put into improving the house, her employment, and her generosity to others like her should not be rewarded because they happened outside the proper channels. Meanwhile, if someone else obtains a house through inheritance or a home ownership incentive program, their worthiness comes under less scrutiny–in part because their situations are less visible, but also because they are more conventional.
Which homeowner is more deserving: a former squatter who attempts to use online funding websites to finance her housing, an heiress whose parents or grandparents left her a house or enough money for a down payment, or someone who knows how to work the system of state and private institutions to get a mortgage? Before you answer that question, ask yourself if the answer really matters.