I am a progressive, feminist, Anglo woman of faith… and I have a big problem with “deserve.”
So much so that I juxtaposed this clip:
with this baby:
just because someone commented to me that Baby deserves to be loved.
Okay, for starters, I have newly discovered the grandparent secret regarding unconditional love: my love just wells up and overflows, because Baby breathes. I’m not even picky about Baby breathing air… unconditional leaves all the picky behind.
A person can’t deserve unconditional love (or unconditional whatever-it-is), because deserve implies conditions. Implies that there are undeserving; that conditions exist to preclude or exclude. Which, between me and Baby, there are not. Neither barf nor poop nor inconsolable noisy misery can separate Baby from my love. All Baby, all love, all the time.
Speaking of unconditional, and thinking of current political news, I’m liberal enough that I’d like to see unconditional health-care. Care that isn’t contingent, precluded, or excluded; all people’s health cared for, even if and when they make poor choices. Which wraps around to my opening statement.
There are days I think “deserve” is the most pernicious word in American communal life.
I get that there is a lot of unjust and unfair in our collective life. I am aware of—and try to pay attention to—ways my birth, upbringing, and economic standing help me side-step unjust and unfair. I like to think I reach out to pull others around unjust and unfair, making where I am a little more just and a little more fair… though I assume I’m missing a lot and not doing enough.
But I don’t think any of us deserve it: just or unjust; fair or unfair.
Maybe that’s my ‘person of faith’ identity vector, my particular faith vector. The deepest sources of Presbyterianism draw on both grace—God’s undeserved and undeservable rescue of our fallible selves—and election (a.k.a. predestination)—the idea that if there’s any holy choosing going on we’re not doing it and there’s nothing we can do about it.
We’re here, by whatever odd quirk of circumstance in God’s unfolding, and that’s about all we can say for ourselves. That, and we’re loved. There’s nothing we can do about that, either. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
All that doesn’t unlock for you my gut-level shudder at deserve, though. Here’s what I see: those things we feel we deserve are things we feel we are owed. Things we are owed are things we see as stolen—our brains light up the same as if we held them in our hands and they were yanked away. Things that other people are owed are things we see as earned—they provided transactional value and were handed their pay. Or they don’t deserve it. Right?
So how does that work for medical care for an addict? Do they earn their care by being repentant? What if they’re not, or their repentance doesn’t translate into changed behavior?
How does that work for a single parent pursuing public benefits for the care of their children? Does spending various days sitting in various lines (and so not being able to trade their time in other transactions) “pay” for the public money expended on benefits? What if they want another child while still under these circumstances?
Yet even as I say these things, I think of the constellation of natural consequences I set up for my growing children: I firmly believe that well-formed character (so old-fashioned!) comes from gaining and losing certain outcomes based on one’s behavior and choices. In that season, I came down on the side of justice more than the side of grace. I will not drive your lunch to school on this the third time this week. If you are receiving subsidized living expenses, you’ll be diligently looking for work… or the subsidy will stop, and we will change the Netflix password.
Is that earning?
Or are those appropriate boundaries that keep us whole?
Or are those things not an “or”?
In my core, I believe in a utopia where none of us deserve. Where we each live as undeserving. We know the good things as the freely-distributed, un-contingent gifts they are; we live and behave to the limit of our diligence (whatever we can muster), because—thankful for the gifts that keep inexplicably showing up—the only celebration we know is to live as our best selves.
On this hang the Law and the Prophets. Thanks be to God.