I just returned from a two-day retreat where I was with 60,000 students from all walks of life. Some attended Ivy Leagues and some were at community colleges, some had graduated early and were already working their dream job, some didn’t graduate high school and have been bouncing around from one low-wage job to the next. At this retreat, all 60,000 of us we were divided into completely randomized groups of eight. In my group, I was the only student who attended what society would call a “top school” (but, honestly, what the hell does that even mean?). At the end of the conference, one of the guys in my group wrote me a kind note about how he enjoyed getting to know me. The opening line of the letter read, “Every person I’ve ever met who goes to a fancy college was so entitled.”
Since that weekend, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the definition of entitlement, where it comes from, and what we can do about it.
I have come to realize that certain complaints really perpetuate one’s entitlement.
When we complain about aspects of our lives that are such “first world problems”, we immediately send a message to those less fortunate than us that we want better, deserve better, and will always be better.
So I thought about my complaints. And then I thought about the message of entitlement that these complaints send to those around me.
I complain about the food options on Duke’s campus. In fact, I complain about food options in general. Just yesterday, I texted my friend how “beyond pissed” I was that Panera has stopped selling my favorite salad ever (Ancient Grain Arugula and Chicken).
I wonder how that makes the one in four children in North Carolina who live in a food insecure household feel?
I wonder how the people of Madaya, Syria would respond to my food complaints, a people who have resorted to eating pets and grass, who are dying of starvation daily? (Check out today’s BBC news article on this if you want more horrific details.)
I complain about my dorm room being small. I wonder how that makes the 11,000 people who are homeless in North Carolina alone feel?
I complain about “needing a haircut”. I wonder how that makes the millions of people who don’t know the joy of a simple shower feel?
I complain about my simple cold, while millions don’t have health care and die from serious illnesses.
I complain about not having enough time to myself. I wonder how people who spend every waking minute just struggling to survive would feel about that?
I complain about all of my work. Then I think of the single mother of the child I tutored in high school, who raises three kids and works two jobs just to get by. I wonder how she would feel when I start complaining about my homework (at my incredible university that just by attending it is opening doors for me that she could never dream of)?
I complain about “being a poor college student”, and then I think about being in the slums of the Dominican Republic and seeing naked children walking around because even just owning one t shirt is far too expensive. I think about the people at my own university who work three work-study jobs and will still have massive student debt.
I am entitled. I complain about things that those less privileged than I am would never, ever complain about.
So I am calling us to consider if it’s really that big of a deal that I had to get the Caesar salad instead of the Ancient Grain Salad and if it’s really that big of a deal that I haven’t had a haircut in a while and if it’s really that big of a deal that I can’t find a pastel-colored shirt to wear for the second round of Sorority Recruitment and if it’s really that big of a deal that my phone is cracked and if it’s really that big of a deal that I have an occasional cough and if it’s really that big of a deal that I have a tough workload.
And I am calling us to consider that we are a lot more entitled than we think we are. I’m not referring just to Duke students. I’m talking to all of us. All of us who have access to a computer. Because, in that way, we are privileged. All of us who can choose where our next meal will come from. Because, in that way, we are privileged. All of us who can know different types of salads and make hair appointments and go to college and dream big dreams. Because, in those ways, we are privileged.
(a note on the idea of privilege in general: Just because someone may be less privileged in regards to having fewer opportunities in life, less money, or not as great of an education, does not mean that they do not have privilege in areas I will never have. They may be far more joyful than I am, far more faithful, far more emotionally stable, the list goes on and on, and therefore far more privileged. The very idea that I assume that privilege is more a fiscal idea shows my entitlement.)
I am calling everyone who is privileged to consider that just as words are powerful, words are also offensive and ignorant. Be careful about what you complain, and to whom you complain. Be careful about how your complaints will be interpreted by the world around you. Be careful about how much time you spend complaining about Panera getting rid of your favorite salad in comparison to how much time you spend assuming that the people you invite out to dinner can afford such a meal, or the time you spend volunteering at soup kitchens, or the time you spend donating cans and money to Second Harvest Food Banks, or the time you spend thanking God or your family or your caretakers for providing you the privilege you do have.
But don’t just be careful. Think about WHY you should be careful. Think about WHY it is important to consider someone other than yourself, people other than yourself, life situations different from yours, gifts different from yours, weaknesses different from your own. For me, this conference opened my eyes to the fact that the reason I care about others is because God cares about others. And I care about God. And therefore by the transitive property I should care about others! (especially those less privileged than I am, since Jesus hung out with lepers, beggars, the crippled, mean tax collectors, etc.) And for you, maybe you feel you owe it to society in return for all that society has done for you. For you, maybe you realize that you wouldn’t be where you are today without your privilege, so you should help people who have the same dreams as you (but less, or different, privilege) get to where you are, too.
I want this semester to be one where I’m not caught up in my bubble of privilege but instead one where I think critically about which complaints are serious and which ones require me to get, instead, a serious reality check.