This is the “second commandment” of sound character development: “Remember, you’re not entitled to anything. Life itself is an unearned gift. Strive to be grateful and of humble heart. And strive also to earn respect.” Gratitude is key to a purpose-driven life and true happiness.
This commandment is another of the 10 Commandments of Character that I’ve been writing about (see also: Character’s First Command: Mindfulness through Empathy and Mastering the 1st Command: Why Some Fail). I’ll be discussing these character-fostering axioms in depth in my upcoming new book with Dr. Kathy Armistead, The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life. It’s a follow-up to our first book together, How Did We End Up Here?.
Now, readers of my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, The Judas Syndrome, already know I believe we live in an age of unprecedented entitlement. Almost everything once regarded as a privilege or something to be earned is now regarded as an inherent right. As a result, many people have come to expect far more than they feel obliged to give, which has set a disatrous precedent for the character formation of our children. This makes the second commandment of sound character development and its message of gratitude very hard to embrace.
A sense of entitlement is especially strong in people with disordered character. In my work with character-impaired people, I have always been impressed with how little gratitude they have, how little regard they show others, and what a small a personal price they’re willing to pay for some of life’s most valuable things. It’s in the nature of disordered characters to want something for nothing and expect to give as little as possible for what should rightfully cost the most. “Respect” is just one very important example.
The Value of Respect
Respect is a good example, because for it to really mean anything, one has to earn it. No one is entitled to respect, and it’s hard to imagine anything more valuable than the respect of one’s family, peers, or colleagues. When people respect you, they attribute to you a “good name” and you gain a good reputation. People in enduring businesses, for example, will tell you that their reputation is hard-earned over time and it is priceless. But once it’s gone, it can take untold time and money to get it back, if in fact you’re fortunate enough to get it back. For many years the well-known company Johnson & Johnson maintained an excellent reputation for quality and trusted products. But in 1982 there was a tragedy involving one of its products, Tylenol, which was the number-one pain killer at the time. There was tampering with the capsules, which occurred after the product reached the store shelves. At least seven people died as a result; and although Johnson & Johnson knew they were not responsible for the tampering of the product, they assumed responsibility by ensuring public safety and recalled all of their product from the market. Even though the company was not a fault, in the mind of the public, there had been a betrayal of trust and the reputation (and market share) of the company suffered. Trust in Tylenol was shaken and belief in the company’s good name evaporated. It took many long years and millions of dollars for Johnson & Johnson to regain their reputation.
While one’s “good name” is important for one’s reputation, cultural norms also play a big role in determining what kinds of things are worthy of respect. Even today, we like to think that a person’s integrity of character takes precedence over how rich they are, how politically well-connected they are, or how talented they are. However we regularly see that it’s not uncommon to lavish recognition, praise, and other rewards on those who bring a valued personal attribute to the table while being indifferent about their moral character. And many of the most deeply troubled individuals not only expect unconditional (i.e. unearned) respect but also feel entitled to lash out at anyone when it’s denied. Sadly, we even see that some think they can have “instant respect” by pointing a gun and inflicting violence. While it is true that every human being ought to be afforded civil, humane, and decent treatment, respect is something else. We “give” our respect, because we admire the good they have to offer.
Cultivating Gratitude in an Entitled World
Many among us work hard to better the human condition. Our lives are meaningful if we help others and make life better for them. And because of the legacy of those who’ve gone before us, it’s easy for us to take many of the things we have for granted. But everything we have comes with a price of human toil, sweat, and sacrifice. And appreciating all these things is difficult in a culture that promotes a sense of entitlement. Nonetheless, no one develops a respect for and a willingness to accept the crucial obligations of life unless they find a healthy balance between what they feel the world owes them and what they owe the world.
A recently retired friend told me about a conversation that he had with his son. The son, “Louis” (names and details changed) was just out of the university and beginning life on his own. Louis complained bitterly to his dad that he didn’t have much furniture and all the appliances in his one-bedroom apartment were broken, if they worked at all. Louis went on to lament that starting out was hard and how could they, his parents, who have so much, not give him what he needed? The son looked at what his parents had and took it for granted that they’d always had everything they wanted. My friend had to remind Louis that he and his mother had worked years to buy that living room furniture, for example, and that they didn’t have a matching bedroom set until just recently. My friend encouraged his son by saying that he’d make it too if he worked hard and saved his money. If he made good choices, he would appreciate what he had done and not just take it for granted that he could start where his parents left off.
There’s a whole science that’s developed in recent years on the power and value of gratitude. It turns out, gratitude is not only crucial to good character formation but an important key to happiness. And gratitude is also key to developing a healthy sense of obligation. So I’ll have much more to say about it in the next post on the “second commandment” of sound character formation.
Character Matters will again be a live program this Sunday at 7 pm EDT. Call in at (718) 717-8296 if you have a situation you want to discuss, a question you want to ask, or a story you you’d like to share.