It’s sunny in Vancouver.
That statement deserves its own paragraph. It’s sunny in Vancouver, and over the past few days I’ve been the recipient of much kindness: comments and notes and messages from friends that arrive without warning and make me wonder what I’ve done to deserve them. I’m crediting the sun.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of deservingness. In class, my students and I discuss the ongoing conversation about student entitlement. We talk about the difference between deservingness and entitlement. What does the university owe you? I ask them. Who deserves high marks? They have lots of smart things to say about degree inflation, their immigrant parents’ expectations, the value of a number on a piece of paper.
But I also think about deservingness as it relates to love and love stories.
“You deserve to be happy,” my dad said to me once, when I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure if I should stay in my relationship.
“No I do not,” I snapped back.
What I was trying and failing to say was not that I thought I should be unhappy, but that I didn’t think deservingness was part of the equation when it came to love.
My friend Lisa’s award-winning essay about grief, living and dying, and happiness articulates a lot of the feelings I’ve had about deservingness but struggled to articulate. She talks about her father’s death, the addition of tumors, the subtraction of life. “Things are always being added, taken away,” she says.
And this is just it: Life gives us what we get. Regardless of what we deserve.
But think about every fairy tale, every romantic comedy, every story handed down from your parents or grandparents. Though there are exceptions, most contain the same implicit argument: Love is awarded to those who deserve it.
Take Cinderella: she’s better than her wicked stepsisters. Better by virtue of not being wicked, but also because she possesses certain feminine traits that have been valued for generations: beauty, patience, meekness, modesty. I grew up thinking I was smarter than fairy tales but I also grew up in a world that promised it was the meek who would inherit the earth.
Disney princesses are easy, obvious targets for our criticism. But the implicit logic of these stories is powerful and ubiquitous. It’s reinforced by movies (Pretty Woman, Sixteen Candles), our families, the headlines on the gossip magazines in the grocery store checkout, even the Bible (why does Boaz choose to marry Ruth—because she is loyal and humble). And this idea doesn’t belong exclusively to women, though certainly we get the message sooner, and have to work harder to escape it. It’s reinforced by the very structure of a democratic society. We may be smart enough to know our leaders are corrupt and our lobbies are powerful, but the possibility that the best man (yes, that is the language of this logic) will get the job still looms large in our collective consciousness.
And this is, perhaps, the biggest problem with love stories. Love, most particularly romantic love, is almost entirely separate from deservingness. The loved are not always virtuous. The virtuous are not always loved.
I don’t believe we get what we deserve. Last Monday, I woke up with the sun but lingered happily under the covers. I sat on the porch with my dog and ate blackberry crisp for breakfast. I walked down the street to a café, ran into a friend, ordered a chocolate doughnut and spent the afternoon writing. I went to the climbing gym with another friend. I drank two beers on a patio until just after dark. It was a supremely good day. And I didn’t deserve any of it. The goodness of my character was far surpassed by the goodness of that day.
I am a young, healthy, well-educated member of the middle class of the racial majority. Life is easy for me based on these demographics alone. I have a good job and a supportive family and a very cute dog. It is tempting to believe that those kind notes from friends were something that I earned. And I am grateful, constantly, for the people in my life, but—and this is not false modesty—I do not deserve such generosity.
I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t partly responsible for the quality of our lives. But I am aware that my luck could run out any moment. And when it does, when I lose my health or someone I love, I won’t deserve that either. Things just happen to us. And as much as I want to believe that you get out of life what you put into it, I do not.
When it comes to love, we arrange the stories of our lives and our relationships to suit our sense of the world as a place that recognizes deservingness. When a relationship ends, we say to one another (or to ourselves), she was a bad fit—you deserve someone who loves you better/more/without reservation.
And isn’t that what we want? Someone who leaves your apartment in the morning, then e-mails an hour later to say, “I think you’re amazing.” It’s certainly what I want for the people in my life. Like my father, I think they deserve to be happy. I believe they should have someone who thinks they are amazing, without reservation. But I wrestle with the question of my own virtuousness—or another person’s perception of it. I am unaccustomed to such easily-given affection, to that label of amazing. For years I was haunted by a feeling that maybe I deserved more that I was getting in life or in love. But, wary of my own entitlement, I didn’t trust that feeling. Now, when kindness comes so easily, I wonder if I should work harder for it.
Science supports the “you’re amazing” approach to love, noting that those who idealize their partners have happier marriages. When I was younger, I was stingy with compliments, afraid, I think, that they might make me vulnerable, afraid I wouldn’t get any back. But today I wonder: why not just be enamored with the people around you, with the roommate who tolerates your dog’s barking and the friend who breaks off a bit of her cookie and silently places it beside you as you write? Why not stop worrying about what you deserve, for an hour or a day? Surely those who are good at such things are the happy ones.