Last week’s article focused on the role of gratitude in character development. Humbly recognizing and being sincerely grateful for the gift of life and all our other blessings is a prerequisite for cultivating a sense of obligation to do our part to make the world a better place. Attitudes of entitlement, however, which are heavily encouraged and reinforced by certain aspects of modern culture, necessarily impair a person’s ability to forge a character of integrity.
In the industrialized societies, most folks live in an age of relative abundance. The developed world actually wastes enough on a daily basis to feed and clothe the disadvantaged among us a few times over. And for the most part, most of us are troublingly far removed from what it takes to create the abundance we enjoy, so we’re prone to take most of what we have for granted. We’ve forgotten the basics of the human condition: survival itself is inherently a struggle. And we’ve forgotten how recent a development in human history the kind of civilization most of us enjoy these days is. To all too many a young person, food gets to the table merely because someone puts it there. And the someone who puts it there simply gets it from the grocery store. That person might have stopped at a “money machine” along the ways and simply gotten cash. Even in adulthood many of us are “removed” by several degrees of separation from the realities that make the whole interdependent system we call civilization work. We have to do a better job teaching our children how it all works – and not just with words. We have to show them as well as let them experience for themselves how the things we need are produced, shared, bartered for, and above all, earned.
Neurotics are prone not only to feel overly responsible for everything but also to “give” quite freely to those they view as less fortunate. And while there really are folks among us so disadvantaged that they cannot fend for themselves or can’t sustain themselves without additional support, there are many more folks who are quite capable but who lack a sufficient sense of responsibility and/or obligation to contribute as opposed to merely take. And such folks make it very difficult for the truly needy to secure the support resources they need. There’s plenty that could be debated here, but when you look at the big picture for any meaningful length of time and with any objectivity, it becomes amply clear that the overly conscientious neurotics among us have helped to create what has rightfully come to be known as an “entitlement society”.
Perhaps nothing is more toxic or potentially dangerous than attitudes of entitlement that are carried into relationships. Behind the “possessive thinking” exploitation, and callous use and abuse of others, and many other problematic thinking and behavior patterns that disturbed characters display in their relationships, one can always find a mindset of entitlement. And anyone who enters into a relationship with a person who doesn’t clearly demonstrate sincere gratitude for the good things that have come their way as well as a heartfelt obligation to earn respect in their relationship by the manner in which they conduct themselves and express that appreciation is cruising for an eventual emotional bruising.
The next “commandment” of character is to cultivate and maintain an appropriately balanced sense of self-worth. I was among a very small minority challenging traditional assumptions about self-esteem promoted so feverishly in so many “pop psychology” books in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The old notion was that you could simply never have too much self-esteem and that most problems people had stemmed from too little of it. It was also assumed that if anyone displayed any signs of ego-inflation, it was actually an unconscious “compensation” for underlying feelings of inferiority. It never really occurred to anyone that a person could actually think too highly of him/herself or that sometimes a person’s excessive self-regard is a genuine reflection of their imbalanced and unhealthy self-concept. I was also among the first to suggest that self-esteem is but one dimension of a healthy self-concept and that it differs markedly from what I like to call self-respect (see also: Self-Esteem and Merit).
In my work over the years, it’s hard to think of anything that I came to realize impacts character development more than achieving a balanced sense of self-worth. As I say in Character Disturbance:
Keep a balanced perspective on your sense of worth. Thinking too much of yourself is as dangerous as thinking too little of yourself. Do not dismiss your accomplishments, but don’t laud yourself or lord over others any position of good fortune you’ve managed to secure. Avoid pretense. Keeping a balanced sense of self and being genuine will hep you stay humble and avoid false pride. (p.140)
Perhaps the most critical factor in developing a balanced sense of self is knowing how to honestly and correctly attribute credit for things. Again, from Character Disturbance:
You are not synonymous with your talents, abilities, or physical attributes. They are all endowments (i.e., fortunate accidents of nature, or “gifts of God”) the universe entrusted to you. Recognize where things really come from and give credit and recognition where credit and recognition are truly due. (p.141)
Who we really are and what determines our real worth has less to do with what we’ve been endowed with and much more to do with what we’ve done with what we’ve been given. That’s why:
The credit for your life and innate capabilities belongs to nature, or, ultimately, the creative force behind nature. The credit for what you do with all you’ve been given goes solely to you. This is the essence of merit. Honor the life force within you as well as all who might have nurtured your potential by using your gifts for the good of all. It’s not so much the outcome of your actions that matter either, for that’s not entirely in your hands. Rather, it’s the effort you make that matters most. Judge yourself on your merits. (p.141)
The easiest way for children to get a “big head” is to overly bask in their talents or to be praised incessantly by their parents and others for the gifts they have. Sometimes they’re told repeatedly how cute they are or how smart they are – like they had anything whatsoever to do with any of that! The problem really comes, however, when they lack a proper sense of how to attribute credit for their gifts. Only when the realize where their gifts come from and how fortunate they are to have them can they begin to develop appropriate awe and humility. Our culture also sends all too frequent messages to our children that they’re inherently “special.” While there’s no doubt we’re all inherently unique, to equate that uniqueness with “special” status is erroneous and dangerous to sound character formation.
What our culture doesn’t afford sufficient recognition for and reinforcement of is a person’s meritorious conduct. And by meritorious conduct I’m not talking about heroic actions. I’m talking about the essence of merit. That is, willing yourself to make the tough choices – to do the right thing – and to humbly use your gifts for the greater good. Only when we have legitimate pride in our willful effort to use our talents well and for the betterment of all can we become “right headed” about our worth as persons. And we need to focus less on what our culture tells us matters most: the outcomes of our efforts. We’re such a success-oriented society. But the outcomes of our actions – even our best-intended ones, aren’t entirely in our hands. The merit in our decisions is not in what gets produced by them but in our willingness to make the right decisions, despite ever-present temptations to do otherwise. And sometimes, maintaining the commitment to do right in the face of a lack of success or achievement is not only the toughest thing to do but also the truest indication of a solid character. Recognizing and reinforcing the good things we do with what we’ve been given in humble appreciation for our gifts leads to a balanced sense of self-worth. We all need to do a better job of assigning credit to folks who act righteously, and individuals themselves need to better recognize and reinforce themselves for making the tough choices as well.