Do I Owe You Anything?

“For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” This quote from the sci-fi novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin ended one of my previous posts. And now I want to take a closer look – what might it actually mean if we were to free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning?

To explore this I am going to get personal and focus on relationships. One sort of relationship is friendship and it is often governed by notions of deserving and earning. For example, if I give my friend a present for their birthday then I might think that I deserve to get one for my birthday, that I’ve earned it. But if we free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning how then can we describe this scenario? It’s obvious that my friend and I care about one another, which is why we’re friends, so I give them a birthday present predominantly as a means of expressing that care. I don’t have to give them a present but I do choose to. Now, I’ve done a nice thing for them but does that mean they have to do a nice thing for me? Well, if earning/deserving are out the window then the simple answer is no. There is no universal law or cosmological truth or fundamental principle that means every good deed deserves another. However, my friend, uncompelled by abstract principles, might still choose to give me a present because they also want to express their care for me and because they know I like getting presents.

The two situations I’ve described above aren’t hugely different – they’re both about giving and receiving presents. However, in the first we can fall back on ideas of earning/deserving – “I gave you a present, so I deserve one”, as if there are unwritten laws that govern how friendships work. In the latter, we cannot fall back on these invisible laws but instead must take responsibility for our actions and choose what we’ll do accordingly. To go back to the quote we can consider the ideas of earning/deserving from two angles: either, everyone deserves everything, or no one deserves anything. The former suggests that we all deserve birthday presents and that sounds great but as soon as the scenario arises in which some people get lots of presents whilst others get none then the principle is undermined. Likewise if we all deserve nothing then we could use this to justify hoarding presents for ourselves whilst never giving them to other people. However, without the ideas of deserving/earning then the act of giving presents is about choice. We love our friend and might choose to express that via giving a present. And so, freeing our minds of the ideas of deserving/earning changes everything. Rather than being governed by rules or laws or decrees or commandments we are suddenly free to act however we wish – we can give as many or as few presents as we want. We get to choose. To put it another way rather than being forced to sing to another’s song we get to compose our own: we get to make our kind of music.

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