believe there are countless ways to live that can balance
giving to ourselves with contributing to the world. Unnecessary
polarization of the two comes, in part, from confusion over
two concepts: what we "deserve" and what we feel "responsible
for." We touch on these below.
Deserve It All!
sometimes hear people say, "I deserve to live well, I deserve
this cashmere sweater...this comfortable a car..." We think
"deserving" is a red herring, an irrelevant and emotionally
charged factor that confuses the issue. Everyone deserves--as
basic rights--many of the things purchased by people with
wealth: a safe home and neighborhood, a good education,
meaningful work, healthy food, clean air and water, control
over one's life.
accepted privileges (like countless throw-away goods and
packaging, dangerously polluting engines, "cheap" goods
made by grossly underpaid workers) no one "deserves," because
the creation of these privileges degrades other people or
the earth's resources.
who tell themselves, "I deserve this. I need to be good
to myself," are often arguing with harsh voices from their
past. They may have grown up wealthy, yet deprived of love,
of stability, of being valued for who they were. Meanwhile
these children were told, "Be grateful--you have it all."
People who grew up with variations on this theme are sometimes
compulsive givers who feel essentially worthless and have
great difficulty spending on themselves at all. For these
folks, knowing that they can spend on themselves can be
an important act of reclaiming self-love.
for most of us, consuming is overrated as the infallible
way to be good to ourselves. We don't say, "I'm feeling
a little low, so to cheer myself up I think I'll go shoot
a cow and cut down a couple of trees." We do say, "I'll
treat myself to a nice steak and then go buy a few books,"
and it amounts to the same thing (from the environment's
vantage point at least). Advertising teaches us to equate
self-nurturance with consumption, and this belief is toxic
both to the planet and to our sense of internal well-being.
Don't Deserve It!
sometimes hear inheritors say, "If only I had earned this
money, then I would deserve to spend it comfortably." But
purity is not so clear cut. Does the celebrity earning $3,000,000/year
deserve so much more than the surgeon earning $300,000/year
or the schoolteacher earning $30,000/year? To complicate
things, most people with "earned" wealth invest their money,
so in time a significant portion of their assets are as
"unearned" as any inheritor's.
the money is earned or unearned, people have to deal with
the conflicts generated by having so much when others have
so little. Many of us, when confronted with the inequities
in the world (or even with the difference in circumstances
of our friends) feel guilty about our material abundance.
Often this guilt is a confusing blend of two distinct emotions:
compassion--that is, empathy for the pain of others--and
hatred, aimed at ourselves for not taking responsibility
for correcting the injustice.
can be a healthy and positive force in people's lives. Naturally
we feel pained by others not having what they need! Of course
we want to fix it! Watch a mother and child walking past
a homeless man, and you're bound to hear, "But why can't
we take him home, mommy?" As we grow up, our open-hearted
caring for other living beings either gets bludgeoned out
of us or eroded away bit by bit. Directly or indirectly,
we're told "It's too overwhelming and hopeless out there.
The best you can do is be responsible for yourself and your
family." And so we close our hearts and deny our fundamental
connection to our neighbors, to humanity, to the living
systems that sustain us.
compassion, which can motivate us towards loving action,
self-hatred is purely debilitating. It often comes from
taking over-responsibility for what are systemic problems
(eg. poverty, racism, starvation...) Our individual action
or inaction did not cause the messes of the world, and our
individual actions alone will not fix them. If we lose this
perspective, the self-hatred side of guilt wears us down
and pushes us into immobilizing denial. Responsibility at
best is an ability to respond. Three steps to taking healthy
responsibility are these:
a loving heart: Notice the suffering in the world (including
your own), even if you haven't the vaguest idea how to
change things. Respect your caring as a beautiful and
valuable part of yourself.
self-forgiveness: While recognizing your connection to
the exploitation of others and the earth's resources,
affirm that you are not to blame. You do not intentionally
create the suffering of others. It is incredibly challenging
to know what to do, and you haven't had sufficient information
and support to figure it out.
action: With the motivation of your compassion, with energy
released from self-blame, take ongoing steps, in collaboration
with others, to bring your life into greater alignment
with your values, and to help change the underlying systems
of injustice. .
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