A friend recently told me that I deserve a vacation. I brushed it off and replied that I haven’t been working that hard. Ever since, I’ve been troubled by that comment and have been reflecting on why it bothers me so much. Today I am sharing with you why I’m uneasy about the idea of deserving reward.
Most of the time, in Western society, deserving something centers around actions: either done or not done. For example, a firefighter pulling a colleague out of a burning building is a heroic act that many people think deserves recognition. We would be wrong not to honor that act. At the same time, a drunk driver dies in an automobile accident, and most people think the person got what s/he deserved. A non-smoker is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and people struggle with explaining the actions she or he has done to deserve that fate. Whereas when a smoker is diagnosed, people often jump quickly to blaming the victim.
All humans search for explanations for evil and suffering in this world. Often these explanations, by attributing or denying to G-d certain characteristics, account for how G-d would allow this to happen. In theological jargon, we call this theodicy.
If we turn to the Tanakh, we find numerous examples of a circular theodicy of sin, retribution (punishment), contrition and reward or back to sin, punishment, etc. Just skim through any of the Prophets. This Jewish theology, based on actions, argues that our fate is in our hands, and if something bad happens to us, then we deserved it and vice versa. This has been one of the predominant theodicies of Judaism throughout the ages. That is until the Shoah and, then, the question changed. Instead, Jewish theologians began wondering: what had we done to deserve millions of us murdered throughout Central and Eastern Europe? No longer did the theology of “the punishment fits the crime” work. Despite this, the idea of reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior still exists. In fact, it exists in Western society in general and not just in Jewish circles.
I’m sure we can all think of a time of two when we said or we heard said something along the lines of “she didn’t deserve that,” or “he’s getting what’s coming to him.” This is that reward-punishment theodicy. There are many examples of this in society and a good number of them focus on women’s and minorities’ behavior. For example, she wouldn’t have been raped if she hadn’t worn such provocative clothing. He wouldn’t have been shot and killed if he hadn’t run. Perhaps the most poignant one for me was Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s explanation blaming feminists, abortionists, pagans, the queer community and others for the 9/11 attack. For many people these are obviously problematic because of the ways in which sexism, racism, classism and homophobia help provide the rational for deserving punishment.
Yet, perhaps not so obvious is another incarnation of this idea in Western society: deserving reward. Returning to the idea that I deserve a vacation because I’ve been working hard, there are two obvious concerns. First, there is the way deserving reward is rationalized. Second, I think there is a distinction that should be drawn between needing and deserving.
The rationale behind why we deserve reward is often individualistic. An individual’s actions explain why one person gets to do this or have that. However, it’s more complicated than that. When individuals act, they act within a patriarchal context. This context not only interprets their actions based on certain assumptions but also interprets how deserving they are of reward. Just think for a minute about these questions: who is consistently believed to be harder workers; who has to work harder to get ahead; who has the free-time to travel; who goes to work even when sick because rent needs to be paid? In other words, the rationale for rewards often includes aspects of privilege as well as racism, sexism, classism, etc. Patriarchy deems some people more deserving of vacations, good food, better educational opportunities, less polluted land, better hospitals, more promotions, increased safety, luxury items, etc., than others. In addition, it inculcates these individuals to believe they earned these rewards.
This is one part of what bothers me about being told I deserve a vacation. If anything, I think people are lucky to be able to go on a vacation. This luck comes from many of the ways they are privileged. In fact, to me, privilege a form of luck. Some people are lucky to be born with more of it than others. That being said, no one should justify anyone’s lot in life based solely on individual accomplishments. Rather, there is a combination of privilege, intersecting societal biases and individual actions that give some people more and many people less.
The second part that worries me is the distinction between deserving something and needing it. In order to continue to contribute in productive ways to create a more just world, individuals need down time. Humans also need healthy food, safety, decent shelter, clean, easily-accessible water, breathable air, healthy environments, seasonally appropriate clothes, good healthcare, meaningful work, access to education, etc. These are not luxuries; they are basic human rights. Every person needs them even though not all have them in equal proportion, if they have them at all.
Therefore, I would say there is a marked distinction between deserving and needing something. Clearly, many humans still don’t have access to all that they need in order to flourish. At the same time, some people have more than they require and think they deserve it.
That being said, I think there will be a time when individuals can say they deserve all the good that comes their way. The prerequisite for this is a just, peaceful and humane world in which the needs of the entire planet are fulfilled. Until then, I’m convinced that humanity is not as deserving as it thinks it is.