Life is unquestionably a most remarkable gift. Even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, you’d have to regard life as one of the most fortuitous “accidents” of nature ever to occur. And if you’re in any way spiritually-minded, you might perceive it as a most precious endowment from a truly wondrous “higher power.” But no one could ever make a legitimate case that he or she is responsible for this miracle we call life or “earned” existence or the many resources that make existence possible. Any way you look at it, we are inherently indebted creatures. Life is simply not something any of us is entitled to but rather blessed with. And appreciation for the many blessings we have received, starting with life itself, is critical to sound character formation. Gratitude also helps instill in us a sense of obligation to do our part to honor and preserve our many blessings for ourselves and our posterity. And there’s abundant research that attests to the fact that a person’s willingness to accept obligation is the cornerstone of responsible social functioning. That’s why I included in my book Character Disturbance this “second commandment” of character development:
Remember, you are NOT ENTITLED to anything. Your very life is an unearned gift. Strive to be truly grateful for the many gifts you’ve received. Regard life and the miracle of creation with appropriate awe and appreciation. Gratitude will enable you to develop a sense of obligation to value, preserve, and promote life and to respect all aspects of creation. Knowing how inherently indebted you really are will keep you from feeling entitled (p.140).
Feelings of entitlement naturally impair sentiments of gratitude and and indebtedness. The entitled person says in his or her heart and mind: “Why should I?” as opposed to ” I owe a debt of gratitude, and feel obliged.” Only gratitude inspires us to do our part to cherish, preserve, and make good use of the blessings we have. This leads to a sense of obligation. It all goes together. That’s why the many features of today’s culture that foster attitudes of entitlement have dealt such a death blow to the sense of obligation necessary to help folks develop characters of integrity and responsibility.
Stanton Samenow has written extensively how a lack of a sense of obligation is at the heart of most serious character disturbances. he makes the case that the most severely impaired characters not only feel no sense of obligation but also are intensely adverse to the notion of feeling indebted. They simply HATE to feel obliged. Rather, they prefer to see themselves as inherently deserving or entitled. This leads them to some truly troubling attitudes and ways thinking. For example, when they’re in a relationship, they tend to resist feeling obliged to respect others’ feelings and rights or to do their part in making things work. Instead, they view their partners as objects they already own and have a right to treat in any manner they please. They don’t see the need to answer to anyone or anything or to “earn” the good things they want in life because they already feel (albeit unjustifiably) deserving. Even the most dangerous criminals will justify their heinous actions toward others by claiming they felt “disrespected.” And they won’t tell you overtly what they feel in their hearts: that they’re entitled to respect without doing anything to merit it and they have every right to demand instantly from others what they feel absolutely no obligation to work for.
The second “commandment” of sound character development urges folks make a conscious effort to be grateful. Early in my work with disturbed characters I saw how important this was. And interestingly enough, in recent years, research has begun to bear out how important gratitude in and of itself is for a person’s mental health. A prominent researcher in the area of gratitude, Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis presents in his book The Psychology of Gratitude some very solid empirical findings demonstrating not only how positive an emotion gratitude is, but also how instrumental it is in promoting an overall sense of well-being and happiness. Emmons also points out that taking frequent mental note of the many things we have to feel thankful for can play a highly constructive role in the development of our world view as well as our overall character. He admits that achieving a positive and grateful frame of mind is quite difficult sometimes, especially during times of trial. So we actually have to train ourselves to recognize the good things we have or that do come our way and then remind ourselves to be thankful for them. And in another book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Emmons makes the case for how important it is for us to find some things to feel grateful about, no matter how difficult, disappointing, or stressful our lives might be at times. I posted an article on Emmons’ research titled Gratitude is Good for You – Really! on another blog that you might find worth the read.
So it seems that time and empirical research has validated the importance of two things my character-impaired clients have been demonstrated to me for a long time: we have to feel blessed and grateful in order to be moved to feel obliged to do our part in the stewardship of life. And being willing to accept our obligations an absolutely essential requirement for forming a character of integrity and responsibility. But it all has to start with gratitude and a sense of indebtedness – the very opposite of the feelings of entitlement so rampant in our culture today. Before moving on to an in-depth discussion of the third “commandment” next week, I hope to examine some of the key factors about modern culture that foster the destructive attitudes of entitlement so prevalent these days. Hopefully, the readers will provide their own thoughts on this, also.