By Matt Gordon
Having read Game of Thrones, I was intrigued when the books were adapted as a television show. Rather than watch it, I watched the world watch it. I even began rereading it to better track with the water cooler conversation that was going on all around me . . .
Tyrion is surely a Targaryen, right?
Cersei is the worst!
Can you believe the Red Wedding!?
It was fun watching people observe a thing I had experienced in a different medium. And then it happened—the final season. The books for this one had yet to be written, so I was in uncharted conversational territory. Though I was confused by many of the new talking points, one thing was perfectly clear: opinions had, like the dragons in the show, become something much, much bigger. In fact, they had gone from eggs to full-fledged creatures of destruction, seeking to ravage any plot points perceived as weak.
The final episode brought on the fullness of dragon fire. Fans lamented, raged, and even signed a petition for a remake of the last season. “This series deserves a final season that makes sense,” the petition, signed by nearly a million people, reads.
But what it really says is, “I deserve a final season that makes sense.”
It is the same thing we say when there aren’t enough condiments in the bag from that fast food idiot. Yes, we curse our fellow human over catsup. It echoes from our horn and inner angst when that moron is only going five-over the speed limit in the fast lane. It is what we say when that rule or policy or plan is not to our exact circumstantial expectations.
I deserve better.
And the reason we think we deserve better is because we have been infected by the disease of entitlement.
Entitlement is not new. It slithers into one of our oldest stories actually—we should probably demand a rewrite of that one. In the famous story, Satan approaches Eve and Adam with the prospect of becoming like God, “For God knows that when you eat from it [the forbidden tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This “becoming like God” is the basis of entitlement. Our opinions on food, shows, time, art, policies, and morality are not those of a creature. They have grown, in our mind, to the stature of creator. This is how things should be, declares I. It is entItlement. Eve and Adam felt entitled to be like God. They were entitled to take what they wanted. They were entitled to see the world how they desired to see the world. It was their God-given right . . . except that it wasn’t.
Just as it isn’t my right to take a script that someone else has written and make it perfectly suit my sensibilities. It isn’t my right to have the perfectly placed pickles on my burger or the precise number of condiments to suit my order. It might be my expectation, and it is a welcome occurrence, but when I make it an unalienable right, I become not a partner with my fellow human, but an overlord of him. Rather than enter into mutual service of one another, I am to be traipsed about in a palanquin through life, green lights only, please and thank you.
And we all feel this to a certain degree. Want to test it out? Well, what do you complain about?
Really think about it. And then think what it reveals. When our complaints—our cries against our plot in life—are focused on ourselves, it reveals a growing entitlement. Our entitlement makes us think we are the boss, the pastor, the director, the ruler, the lead role, the sole arbiter of truth in all things.
The problem with this is threefold.
We’ll make the first the simplest. Entitlement is self-centered, self-interested, and self-consumed. The things we complain about often are akin to a toddler becoming a fool for a lack of dessert. We’ve just become clever at masking it. In life, we should want better, but that fight for better ought to find its focus on the plight and portion of others. The toddler who tantrums over his brother’s lack of dessert would be well-regarded and rewarded, one way or another. We’ll know we are winning over personal entitlement when we find ourselves less likely to be fighting others because we are so fixated on fighting for others. In its basest form, entitlement is feckless selfishness and nothing more. It masquerades as something more, but it is a callow, hollow thing which can turn any small happiness to a sizeable bitterness.
Second, it is pointless. No matter how often I complain about the way my company does things, I am no more in charge than I was before my gossipy tirade. I can take my church to task, there in the comfort of my house slippers, but it makes no difference to how we observe communion—and it could make a very big difference to how I experience communion. Entitlement is silly because it doesn’t actually actualize any change. It just walks around with its hands out hoping the “best” things cosmically wind up there—and being sullen and mean-spirited when they don’t.
Third, entitlement is stupid. I don’t mean at the ethical level, either. No, I mean more straightforwardly that it is typically illogical and imbecilic. Recently, I read the social media post of a woman grumbling about her university’s decision to give students the week of Thanksgiving off. She was upset because her professors had made a bunch of assignments due the Monday following the break. “The nerve!” she said with the seriousness of a simpleton. She is operating with a very limited deck in terms of information. She doesn’t know why they decided what they did, nor what other options were available. She also doesn’t know what every institutional professor is doing with their assignments or how it affects them and every other student; her scope is tiny, but her voice is loud.
Further, and now we come to it, the only reason there is a storm of due dates (a bad thing in her opinion) is because the inherent good thing in her life (a week off for family time from an institution of higher learning which she has access to in terms of both finances, proximity, and mental acuity, etc.). She totally wants the good thing: the time off—she made that clear in her post. She just doesn’t want any semblance of bad.
The problem with this thinking—and we all do it—is that good and bad are entangled in this life. I love my children, for instance. I cannot fathom a world in which they don’t exist. They make me smile every day. They teach and grow me. Having them is a tremendous blessing. But if I could ask for one more such blessing it would be that they wouldn’t age, ever leave me, and that nothing bad will ever befall them. In theory this is as it should be, perhaps. But we don’t live in theory. Reality is where the flag of our life is firmly planted, and in reality, my children will get older, will get sick, and will someday be lost to me or I to them.
So this becomes my choice—I can either acknowledge and live in reality, or I can become unhinged, short-tempered, and a tinge more resentful every time the common cold reminds me of the mortality of blessing.
Taken to the extreme—as I think it rightly should be—this means every bad thing that befalls us is built on the back of a blessing, a good thing. Like today, it is cold outside. I only know that because I have a frame of reference of more temperate weather. My light momentary affliction is based on knowledge of past beauty and possible future promise—in this case, good weather once more. When I get that bad diagnosis at a check-up, it comes after living free of such. When work things go awry, it is because they had some “awry” yet to stagger toward. In short, we have life. We have been graced with dignity. A constant, petulant clamoring for more stagnates our progress and sullies what good may come. We cannot see the forest for the trees, the saying goes. But in the case of entitlement, we look through both until our eye settles on whatever desert lands we can find. The entitled eye is always seeking for the void by which to be embittered.
But what if we switched places? What if we constantly populated ourselves upon the barren, desolate places? Each day, then, would offer the opportunity to step out of the harshness of the sun and into the welcoming shade of those trees before us. We’d take them in, breathe their moist air. We’d notice things anew, each day becoming a micro-creation narrative; our lives a stroll through a paradise. Breath, mobility, thought, laughter, clothing, food—well, what a welcome surprise! For me? our hearts would sing in staggering, wondrous disbelief. And when bad things come—when the forest of our lives are shaken, when sorrows like sea billows roll—well, our perspective would hold us steady, still us, and it would be well, still, with our soul.
Horatio Spafford felt this keenly. A man who embraced his status as a creature and constantly battled against reaching out toward the forbidden tree of self-serving entitlement, he penned the famous words, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Weighty words, but heftier still when one considers the timing of his statement. After losing a son and his earthly wealth in the Great Chicago Fire, he turned his attention to evangelism. He sent his family to England, where he would join them in short order, to help with a string of evangelistic campaigns. The ship his family was aboard floundered, and Spafford’s four daughters were among the casualties. Traveling to comfort his grieving wife, Spafford passed the place in the Atlantic Ocean which had claimed the lives of his dear daughters. He took pen in hand and began writing the memorable hymn, an ode to a perspective and selflessness which dismisses entitlement in favor of sacred hope:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night, oh my soul!
Gratitude is knowing for what to be thankful. But it also comes from knowing our place in this life. We were made by a Creator who loves and accepts and adopts us as His own. Life may not treat me kindly, but He has and will. I may not get my way, but I can take up His way. Riches and health may fail me, friends may desert me; hardship may dog my every step. Unknowns may lurk, the books of this season of life yet to be written. But even so, I can breathe full the sweet air of the trees planted deep and eternal in my life, and with joy and hope, pinned fixedly and undeservedly to a final season that makes sense, I can say, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Such is the end of entitlement; such is the beginning of gratitude.
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