According to The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, “a key concept in Hasidic (Jewish) thought expresses the idea of balance: keep two pieces of paper in your pockets at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust.’ On the other, ‘The world was created for me.’” This sentiment, poetic and profound, resonates with me. Because it’s true, of course, that all men are dust– were created from and will return to dust… And equally true that Jesus loves humans individually to the point that He would die just for me if I were earth’s only inhabitant.
But keeping the two truths in balance is hard work. Too much emphasis on “I’m a speck of dust” and we lose the life-giving love of Christ. Too much emphasis on “the world was created for me” and we see ourselves as overly special, unique, deserving. Other cultures – perhaps impoverished ones where folks routinely stand for hours to get clean water – may readily identify with “I’m a speck of dust.” But America? We’re way at the other end of the spectrum. As a society, we wrote the book on “the world was created just for me.” L’Oreal (and a thousand other marketing messages like it) told us “You’re worth it!” – and darned if we aren’t going to take them at face value and clamor for our share of the happiness we feel is our birthright as Americans.
I’ve done a bit of thinking on our culture’s entitlement mindset as it affects our kids… but less so, I’ve been realizing lately, on my own entitlement mindset. The ways in which I feel that the world owes me a smooth ride (at least most of the time). And the way such views impact my parenting and can influence my kids.
A dear friend of mine has identified toughness as a quality that she and her husband want to intentionally build into their kids. They aspire to raise children who can handle themselves and problem solve in unusual or demanding circumstances without falling apart or feeling sorry for themselves. While I know lots of parents who strive not to coddle their kids, I’d never heard anyone articulate the value of toughness in this way. One method that my friend and her husband are using is to train themselves not to complain. “If I want to raise kids who aren’t whiners,” she said, “then I cannot model a complaining spirit.” Fine. Who wouldn’t agree?
Her family joined us on our recent camping trip, and their drive down was what most moms would call “a nightmare.” What should have taken five hours took ten plus. They drove through pelting rain and snow, pulling their camper. Their eight-month old cried incessantly, keeping their other two children awake. They’d had only five hours sleep the night prior. When they arrived at the campsite after 9 pm, temperatures were much lower than expected and no one slept (much) for the cold. But the next morning, I didn’t notice my friend to be exasperated about all this. She didn’t et into ‘mother war story’ mode, roll her eyes, and tell me what a nightmare it had been. No bad attitude. She simply relayed the events and her tiredness, suggested a trip into town for coffee and to find some warmer clothes for her kids, and got on with it.
Later, when our toughness discussion came up, I reflected on this. How much effort had it taken her to arrive at a basically uncomplaining spirit in this venture? Maybe a lot (it would have for me); maybe not so much (she’s more practiced than me). During their less-than-pleasant drive, my friend and her husband had talked about the trip – how they would respond if the weather remained terrible and their baby remained fussy. “Well,” they concluded, “that would be disappointing, but it would be great experience for our kids in building toughness.” Very logical; very inspiring… and very not the way that I’d be inclined to view things. I’d be too busy wallowing in my self-pity and resentment.
A day later our four-year old son put a rock through the back window with a whiffle ball bat. Our campsite was surrounded with poison oak, to which my husband is extremely sensitive, so we’d spent ample time and energy keeping our children away from everything green. (Oh well, Last Child in the Woods; maybe next time.) Hitting a ball was out of the question as it would wading through posion-oak for retrieval; he had quietly selected a few rocks instead. A crash; horrified crying from my son; and controlled anger from my husband. Glass was everywhere; no one could quite believe what had happened. Were we really 30 miles from the nearest town, 500 miles from home, with a huge hole in the back window of our home-away-from-home van?
My husband handled the situation well but was frustrated (as was I). Dealing with the van would require a considerable portion of the next morning. I could tell he was repressing an urge to consider the whole trip ruined. “It’s one thing,” I said to my friend, “if vacation-related things go wrong like bad weather or posion oak at the campsite. But it feels wrong when something like this happens. It’s harder to accept.” She said she knew what I meant but really, wasn’t that just entitlement thinking? Life, God, the university owes us a good experience – smooth sailing, met expectations. “We are taking time off for this; it’s supposed to be fun. This is not what I signed up for.”
The incident, her viewpoint, the ‘toughness’ discussion — it all really got me thinking. What does it mean to let go of our entitlement, to lay aside the American sense of our right to harmony? Beaause an entitlement mentality and humility cannot coexist; they are opposites. We have a right to nothing- except death, as a result of our sin. Everything we have is a gift from God – everything. And I dare to complain to God about a rock through the window? I, a speck of dust, would approach my perfect and holy God undone by this circumstance?
Entitlement and toughness are likewise oil and water. An entitlement mentality cannot coexist with an uncomplaining heart. If we would truly root out whininess in ourselves – and foster an unwhiney atmosphere in our homes – we must take seriously the biblical injunction not to complain; to be thankful always. If that sounds as impossible to you as it does to me, it’s because we’re forgetting the transforming power of Christ. The solution is not to grit our teeth, try harder, or pretend that facets of life aren’t hard, disappointing, or downright terrible. The solution is Jesus who, though God, “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (and fellow dust speck). This Jesus is the one who can root out entitlement in us – and in our kids too. He can make our hearts thankful, regardless of circumstances. And in the end, He is the one who brings us into balance – moves us away from our perch on the “world was created just for me” (half of the story) pole and gives us eyes to see – and hopefully live (eventually!) – the whole picture.