Recently I went to see the documentary about TV personality Fred Rogers. I’m sure many of us still know the sound bites and can even sing along: “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? …”
Mr. Rogers wasn’t a staple in my young life, but of course I had seen him and his neighborhood more than a few times. For those who haven’t seen the recent movie, it highlights the life and legacy of this children’s television host, who, incidentally, was also a minister. One part that really stuck with me, though, is the blame he took later for supposedly contributing to a generation often accused of carrying a deep sense of entitlement and desire for undeserved recognition or reward.
Fred Rogers told children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. Those kids then raised their own children, now called millennials, who are frequently criticized for their collections of participation trophies and seemingly unearned praise.
But is Mr. Rogers really to blame? Is it wrong to remind kids they’re special and loved just as they are? Is it entitlement? Or is it affirmation?
Let’s look at this with an illustration we can all relate to.
What’s in your wallet?
If I take a $20 bill out of my wallet, does it have value? Yes, of course it does.
What if I lost it, would it still have value? Would I put my wallet down, leaving any other bills in there, and go search for this one? Yeah, kind of obvious, right? That bill has intrinsic value, whether it’s in my wallet or not, so of course I’m going to go look for it.
This is just a different take on one of Jesus’ famous parables. The Gospel of Luke gives us a variety of parables Jesus used when Pharisees grumbled about Him blessing and hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. Here’s the one we were paraphrasing:
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”
Did the sheep change value just because it was relocated?
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’”
Did the coin become worthless because it was trapped between the sofa cushions or something?
Let me take it further. Most of you are familiar with the story of the prodigal son.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
Of course that part’s easy to spot … entitlement, right? “Gimme what I’m owed!”
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’”
So what if my item of value had not only been lost, but had been through some stuff? What if that $20 bill was now crumpled, dirty, and weathered?
So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Let’s stop there for a minute.
Did the son go through some stuff? Did he face some consequences? Maybe deal with some pain and suffering? Did he deserve it? Well … maybe … But also look back at verse 14:
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
Sometimes we contribute to the problems we face, but sometimes things – like famines – just happen. And guess what? Our value doesn’t diminish because of our situation or our scars! And that’s affirmation.
Affirmation is what the father provided to the younger son.
God’s affirmation reminds us that we are special, we have value. And it’s nothing we have earned.
But we’re not finished with the story.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”
What about those times when we see someone get money, recognition, success, whatever, while we’re still here toiling and not getting the same? Don’t we have a right to be angry when others succeed without facing the same obstacles? Well … doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the older brother in the Luke 15? Am I the only one who has been guilty of whining to my Father about some sibling getting “unfair” rewards?
I have often related to the older brother of that parable, the serious and responsible one. But just like the younger son who demanded the father give him his inheritance, the older one had the same sense of entitlement – he just came at it from a different angle – by accusing their father of somehow holding out on him while the younger brother got perks he hadn’t earned.
Affirmation is reflected in God’s love; entitlement is man’s twisted creation.
Affirmation recognizes that people have different needs, different obstacles, and different journeys.
Entitlement is thinking I need something just because someone else has it. Or deciding someone else received something unfairly because they didn’t earn it.
Entitlement is dangerous because it builds and festers and grows into the weeds that choke out the seeds of faith that yield the gifts we all can access. They choke the unique, all-encompassing, compassionate, affirming love only God can generate. And that’s sad, not only for those who miss out on the reflection, but also for the one stuck in those weeds – us!
Overcoming a sense of entitlement
To overcome this human condition, it helps to acknowledge that our obstacles – like mountains, buildings, and any landscape aspect – appear smaller to others because they are farther away than we are. And their mountains appear smaller to us for the same reason. We ALL – like both brothers in the parable – have obstacles custom built for us – sometimes by our own hands, sometimes by others, and sometimes just because.
We ALL also have gifts and blessings, also custom built for us. When we can rest in that knowledge, we are better able to cheer for the successes of others without regretting our own apparent lack. It improves our own path because we can better see the wonderful help God sends us for our own unique hike in and around our mountains. And it helps us become better reflections of our Creator.
Back to the parable:
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The older brother, so focused on entitlement, failed to notice he not only never lost his “share,” but by staying home he had maintained comfortable access to all the father owned, while his younger brother had faced his own struggles. In other words, celebrating one brother did not in any way diminish or damage the other – despite what the older one may have felt, twisted with an entitlement mindset, scratching and clawing in the quest for “more” of whatever we think will meet our needs for affirmation.
The only true affirmation comes from God. That means we cannot rely on someone else to fill us with the love and full acceptance we need to walk confidently through our lives. But that does not release us from our responsibility. We cannot use God’s perfection and our imperfection as an excuse to avoid our duty as Christians to build each other up and show love to our neighbors.
But it also doesn’t mean we have to be popular or have some hugely recognized impact in order to fulfill our purpose in life.
The flip-side of entitlement
I once worked with a guy who had survived a severe illness as a young child. His twin brother had died. Well-meaning family and friends consistently told him he had lived because God had a special plan for him. He grew up carrying that idea – meant to affirm his value – but it became twisted into some sort of expectation instead, like a warped type of entitlement. He always felt like he didn’t meet his potential because he hadn’t gone on to “do anything significant.”
Others have been through similar experiences and have described their survivors’ guilt similarly – whether dealing with military combat, domestic violence, accidents, attacks, or surviving eras like the AIDS crisis. But while it is important to be grateful for life, if we buy in to the notion that we must somehow deserve or earn every breath, isn’t that just another twist on the entitlement concept?
That’s a burden we were never asked to carry. If we look at all the Biblical accounts of people being raised from the dead, only Jesus is recorded as having done anything spectacular. The others are barely even mentioned. And those who were resurrected weren’t told by Elisha, or Jesus, or Peter, “Hey, I spared you so you can do something big and famous.” So be encouraged if you have been through some stuff – even if others haven’t fared as well. Your value remains, as does theirs.
Let it go
Matthew 10:29-31 (MSG)
“What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk. You’re worth more than a million canaries.”
Put down that heavy luggage of entitlement that leads us to judge others and ourselves. Replace those negative comparisons that tell us we’re worth more or less than someone else. And look for ways to remind each other of God’s affirming love
Just go out there and be … ordinary! And be good at it! No comparisons. No judgment about what you or others are entitled to. Just be you. Because being ordinary is extraordinary in the eyes of God.
photo credit: pixabay.com, cc0 https://pixabay.com/en/winner-medal-gold-award-success-1548239/