In the bigger picture of life, the details eventually comprise what that picture looks like. More specifically, the choices each of us makes on a regular mundane basis eventually form our habits, attitudes, and, ultimately, our character.
I am interested in character, first and foremost. It forms the umbrella and the underpinnings of a person’s being and identity. Character is what is relevant and important. Circumstances change, but character forms and endures. It is the overarching set of qualities, values, and habits that define a person. People are responsible for their glitches, errors, and inappropriate responses—but a person’s character will largely govern and predict the reaction to a given situation, especially one of challenge.
In my professional practice as a clinical neuropsychologist, I am fortunate to have the tools and experience to heal people’s distress and to eliminate or substantially reduce their symptoms. The relief of distress and suffering is what people want from me; it is the basis of the “contract” implicit in the doctor-patient relationship. I do my best to fulfill that responsibility. It is not only what I get paid for, but it reflects my deep passion and commitment: I love healing people!
However, I do have another agenda, and I typically divulge this to my patients: in addition to providing healing and relief from symptoms, it’s my aim to build people of character. That is my calling as a psychologist and as a Christian—to help people aspire to live worthy, fulfilling, and productive lives, according to God’s set of guidelines and principles. I don’t preach or proselytize. I simply fulfill my duty of healing; usually, this includes training the patient’s brain to function more efficiently and flexibly, getting rid of traumas, obstacles, and clinical syndromes, and identifying the person’s strengths, weakness, motivations, and blind spots. Along with providing these services, I do my best to give sound advice, helping patients understand and evaluate their behavior and options. In my professional capacity, I am necessarily imparting values and beliefs, although I don’t pressure people to follow my creeds. I try to lead by example and by the wisdom of science, spiritual faith, and collective experience.
In talking with patients and helping them figure out the behaviors and motivations of others who may confuse or vex them, I often ask the following question:
“Is this behavior you’re reporting by so-and-so typical of how he or she would act? In other words, is the response or behavior in keeping with the person’s character or is it out of character for that person?”
This is an important qualifier in determining how to interpret someone else’s behavior and choosing (with foreknowledge of likely consequences) how to respond. People tend to repeat patterns of behavior; much of it falls in line with their character. We should strive to actively resist prejudging a person’s character and expecting every one of his responses to automatically conform to an established stereotype. However, we should not be surprised by repetitions of a person’s previous behavior in a new situation that can typically reflect the attitudes, expectations, and character that the person might manifest in similar circumstances. Alternatively, if a behavior is atypical of the person’s character, then we might look for unusual or mitigating circumstances that would prompt the unexpected behavior.
For example, if someone misses an appointment, I’d expect the person to acknowledge the oversight and give an apology or an explanation. Some will do so, some will ignore it, and some will make excuses or pretend there was no appointment. The response the person gives or omits provided clues to character and integrity. Over the course of a relationship, people will establish patterns showing how responsible they are about keeping or remaking appointments. For a person who keeps appointments faithfully, an absence seems “out of character,” and I would make allowances for an irregularity, as it would seem atypical. For a person who misses many appointments, however, the behavior is not surprising (though dismaying), as it falls into a pattern of the person’s characteristic behavior. Such a person may be defensive or resistant to being held accountable (a sure sign of entitlement).
Other examples are legion when it comes to explaining or justifying lapses or mistakes. “It wasn’t my fault, “ or, “that other person is out to make me look bad” are illustrations of attitudes that blame, externalize, or dismiss one’s responsibility an locus of control in given situations and outcomes.
There are many factors that influence character and attitudes. In whatever ways these influences may accumulate, during the course of my forty plus years of clinical practice, I have discerned a thread that stitches together a person’s character and makes the “fabric” of character sort into two basic categories: those people who feel entitled—think that life “owes” them—and those who take responsibility for their own choices, actions, and consequences, and who are oriented to being accountable. This defining characteristic nature separates people and predicts many of their responses and perceptions of themselves and of life. In my experience, it also significantly predicts their satisfaction, productivity, and their habit of being sensitive and attuned to the needs of others. In great measure, the need for and belief in entitlement (i.e., undue and excessive privilege—see explanations that follow) differentiates life’s winners from life’s losers.
Dealing with character necessitates grappling with who and what is responsible for behavior. Since I treat people who have illness, syndromes, and disorders, the factors of responsibility and ownership become central to the associated attitudes, accountability, predictions of future behavior, and outcomes that often involve scarring consequences. In order to be accountable, responsible for one’s actions, and to move forward in socially acceptable ways, one must consciously take ownership of the boundary that distinguishes “I am responsible for what I did” from “the illness (condition, drug, alcohol, circumstances) is responsible for this “out of character” behavior.
Older readers may remember the hilarious routine by comedian Flip Wilson (in the 1970s) with the famous line, “the devil made me do it.” This was Wilson’s trademark parody of excuses to justify bad behavior, impulsivity and immorality, and was used to mock the removal of oneself from responsibility from one’s actions.
Indeed, “the devil made me do it” is a reality, regardless of your beliefs about spiritual warfare. However, for all of us, the question always remains: did you and do you have any say-so in complying with the devil’s compelling wiles? We should ask: am I totally innocent because of the devil’s power? Am I conveniently rationalizing a denial of responsibility for my actions? Or, do I have some measure of choice and will in all decisions and in virtually all matters that befall me, even though I may seemingly be at the effect of nefarious conditions or influences? Am I capable of responding positively and nobly in an ostensibly negative situation?
A wrenching example of this dilemma is highlighted by the recent news sensation involving Suzy Favor Hamilton. She was a famously accomplished athlete who competed in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Summer Olympics. She was a national champion runner who broke many records, rising to fame, stardom, and admiration. She was also married, living with her husband and children in Wisconsin, when she turned to a double (and not-so-secret) life of prostitution in Las Vegas. At first cajoling her husband into three-way sexual experimentation, Favor Hamilton embarked upon a lifestyle of Las Vegas prostitution.
Ultimately, when the scandal broke, she attributed her wild behavior to bipolar disorder and the untoward effects of Zoloft, a medication prescribed for her disorder. Though Favor Hamilton admitted (on national television) to “multiple customers” per day and to her zeal for and enjoyment of getting paid for unfettered and illicit sex, she nonetheless attributed this “out-of-character” behavior to her illness and to drugs.
Is that so?
There are many people with bipolar disorder and many more who take Zoloft. (I treat some of them.) The dangerous side effects of Zoloft are well documented, and the manic excesses of those suffering from bipolar disorder are legion. We must ask, however: how many in this population resort to sexual promiscuity and desertion of family? What is it about bipolar disorder that would mandate (or excuse) expression in this form of behavior? And, are we to assume that prostitution and promiscuity themselves are the surface symptoms caused by mental illness?
Or, should we revert to Flip Wilson’s assertion that “the devil made (her) do it?”
From my perspective, clearly the devil made Suzy do it! From a Christian view, how could it be otherwise? I don’t mean to moralize or sanctimoniously condescend. The devil prowls, and is always looking for people to devour with his schemes. We are all sinful, vulnerable, and subject to predations upon our weaknesses. We must be vigilant and careful; and yet we make mistakes.
The repetition of mistakes and the attendant justifications, however, constitute a damning representation of character. The message in Suzy’s confession is ambiguous: I am responsible for what I did, but it wasn’t my fault. Of course not—it was the bipolar, the medication…the devil!
When we listen to Flip Wilson, we get the humor, the sadness, the weakness, and the exposure. Perhaps—if we are honest—we can see this tendency or at least temptation in ourselves—every one of us. But that doesn’t mean we have to act it out; and if perchance we do, it doesn’t require excuses, justification, or sharing the blame.
Character is determined, in great measure, by the degree to which we are willing to be held accountable, to fully acknowledge, to sincerely repent, to renounce sin and transgressions, and to make amends.
Since I am involved professionally with the prediction, interpretation, and modification of behavior, I am deeply interested in the “who” and “what” that determine behavior. I have written previously on these topics in my books, ADD: The 20-Hour Solution and Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times.
In ADD: The 20-Hour Solution, I’ve addressed the issue of behavioral responsibility, free will, chemical imbalance, and choice. To read excerpts from this discussion, CLICK HERE
In Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times, I devote a chapter to the important issues of entitlement and humility. To read excerpts from this discussion, CLICK HERE
Entitlement is basically the mental and emotional attitude and set of beliefs (conscious or otherwise) that one is permitted, eligible, deserving, and authorized to have certain treatment, privileges, recognition, status, respect, and commodities. Moreover, entitlement underscores the right to these things, the notion that one is owed them, and that the absence of their consistent delivery constitutes an injustice and offense to the person entitled.
Entitlement is essentially the opposite of humility—the attitude and practice of making oneself subservient, less deserving, and deferring to the importance, recognition, and needs of others.
It’s enlightening to discern character according to a person’s degree of entitlement or humility. If we are to build admirable character in ourselves and in others, we must concern ourselves with learning and practicing humility on an ever-widening basis. We must be vigilant against the beachfronts of believing that life owes us: whether we are aware of it or not, the evidence of this belief surfaces in indignant reactions, complaints and excuses, self-pity, a groundless victim attitude, and persisting frustration and displeasure whenever we don’t get what we want or things do not work in our favor.
We must also be wary of the innate human tendency to make excuses and to blame someone else. It started with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were ancestors of you, me, and Flip Wilson. Of course, the devil made them do it.
The high road of accountability and humility leads to greater riches and ultimate recognition and approval than does the temptation and instinct to grab the limelight and the spoils.
This brief self-administered rating scale will help you clarify your beliefs about the way the world works and how you are treated. It also may illuminate the degree to which you consciously or unconsciously project neediness or a sense of entitlement.
Ought we to excuse unacceptable behavior and violations of social norms on the basis of an imputed medical condition or biochemical imbalance? If so, to what extent, and where do we draw the line?
Of course, these are difficult questions, and they are hotly debated and answered by varied legal, medical, educational, and parental approaches.
We (co-author Dr. Siegfried Othmer and I) believe that an intelligent, moral, and practical approach to the question of behavioral responsibility should include an understanding of brain function and its responses to modification in social and historical contexts. In keeping with this idea and with empathy for parents who struggle with a range of emotions and moral imperatives in their discretion, we offer this discussion on keenly relevant aspects of responsibility for behavior.
What ever happened to free will?
Once the province of philosophical and religious inquiry, this question enjoys a resurgence in popularity among the denizens afflicted or affected by dysfunction and maladaptive behavior. The issue of free will and personal responsibility has surfaced with tenacious significance in step with the explosive growth of neuroscience and the increasing understanding within the scientific community about how the brain functions and how it can be modified. Ironically, the mounting discoveries about brain complexity have had a troubling side effect: Behavior is increasingly seen as a function of biochemistry, which can be targeted by designer pharmaceuticals. As personality and behavior are reduced to products of neurotransmitter efficiency, people find it easier to disown responsibility for their actions, often attributing reckless or harmful acts (with the sanction of advocates or the applied biochemistry industry) to biochemical imbalances.
While wrestling with the causes of problems considered as emotional, behavioral, or “mental”, consider the stakes:
People function and dysfunction. Millions muddle through their four score and ten years unhappy, stressed, fearful, depressed, frustrated, and insecure. They are run by powerful negative emotions that jade their perceptions and undermine their mental and physical health. Nonetheless, the majority of these quietly suffering people are somehow able to get through the day. They grow up, get through school, go to work, have relationships, raise children, and more or less go about their business. They may appear functional to outsiders, but they know that they are desperately struggling to hold on. The powerful negative feelings that drive so many people through years of silent suffering often skulk as carefully guarded individual and collective secrets.
In desperation and with seemingly no other recourse, dysfunctional people often turn to mental health providers for help. The objective of most of these interventions is to free the patient of negative emotions by means of comprehensive self-examination, methodical retraining (operant conditioning) of counterproductive response patterns, or drug therapy.
Once the reluctance to seek help is assuaged, patients face wrenching conflicts between their inner relief from depending upon all-knowing professionals and their opposing yearning for independence and self-direction. Besides the intended alleviation of symptoms, the benefits of dependence include being cared for, feeling understood, yielding to passivity and reduced effort, and the absolution of (at least partial) responsibility for one’s circumstances and actions. The downside is that one bargains away portions of self-sufficiency, autonomy, personal beliefs, and control in submitting to treatment. A price for ascribing dysfunction to being ill is the erosion of one’s free will…
Where should we focus? Parenting? Moral laxity and cultural evils? Family decline? Educational deficits? Genetics? Biochemistry? Diet? In a maddeningly vicious cycle, the cause continues to elude the chase for fitting solutions. All the while, the recriminations and frustrations continue: Why me? Why this? What next?
Our era has seen a proliferation of technological marvels. These have extended into the biological domain to reach sophisticated achievements, such as cloning and genetic engineering. Medical science has brought us “designer” drugs that increasingly pinpoint neurotransmitter functions in the effort to tailor somatic and emotional reactions.
Modern imaging techniques allow us to see how the brain responds to stressors, tasks, and substances, as well as the physiological and structural effects of these things over time. It is said that, after the Internet, the explosive growth of the neurosciences will be the most influential scientific frontier in the coming decade. This is heady stuff!
What, then, about personal responsibility, free will, and choice? We suggest that any conceptual framework (scientific or otherwise) that wrests control and responsibility from the intention of individuals is seriously misguided and flawed. The wonders of technology (including brain-training technology) must be balanced against the risks of medical “reductionism” so that we don’t excuse or condone bad behavior on the basis of technical explanations for justifying who people are and what they do.
We are not denying the systematic and meticulous discoveries about biochemical and genetic influences. In most cases, we have developed parallel explanations of behavior — parallel in that, for EEG neurofeedback, we use models of neurotransmitter functioning similar to the medical models, only that we propound changing these neurotransmitter patterns through brain training rather than solely through psychoactive drugs. Indeed, we go so far as to suggest that learning is so basic to brain function that the brain actually learns to respond to psychoactive drugs).
We caution, however, against relying upon these “medical” explanations as the entire determinants of behavior and the implications and effects of such views upon treatment, self identity, human relations, legal jurisdiction, and social behavior. Certainly, people are propelled by biochemical realities. Yet, this is no rationale for the flippant and pervasive “biochemical imbalance” explanation given by doctors and patients alike to settle concerns about untoward behavior. The true “imbalance” would be that of worshipping with the cult of the neurotransmitter: Accepting facile technical explanations as a substitute for combining the wealth of developing knowledge about the brain as a control system with new methods of modifying it and the historical cultural treasures we have cherished about human free will and responsibility.
It seems that theories of biochemical imbalance are both fashionable and scientific. Like other universal truths (e.g., gravity and reinforcement effects upon behavior) biochemical imbalances exist and exert their influences whether or not we believe in them. The practical challenge is to gain enough understanding and control over them so as to predict and modify their desired outcomes.
The real issue, from our perspective, is that biochemical imbalances exist in normal, and even optimal, functioning. To ascribe ADD/ADHD, depression, etc. to a biochemical imbalance is to miss the point — which is the appropriate and functional management of biochemical imbalances on a homeostatic, automatic, internal basis.
Life is a series of imbalances. Hunger, fatigue, ambition, sexual desire, cell reparation… these are all cyclical imbalances that require adjustments and corrections constantly. This is, part and parcel, the fabric of living. The body and mind detect, respond to, assess, and evaluate challenges regularly. These challenges involve routine biochemical functions (even maintaining body temperature), as well as perceptions of, accommodations to, and integrations with the environment. The distinct and persisting difficulties that many people have in regulating these imbalances comprise vulnerabilities, not necessarily diseases.
There are markers, of course, for disease that are not merely categorical. Certainly, disease processes impinge upon and deteriorate our systems’ abilities to regulate internal balances. But the tendencies toward and prevalence of disregulation (lack of consistent and effective management of the shift of balances) far exceeds the occurrence of disease.
We emphasize that the traditional medical model frequently errs in the understanding and treatment of these mismanaged balance shifts by “over-pathologizing” states of disregulation into bona fide diseases (or, as they are known, disorders). The effort to objectify, distance, and render dispassionate those behaviors and symptoms that stir emotional controversy too often results in a diagnosis that legitimizes an unquestioned and distinctly culpable “biochemical imbalance” whose existence would seem to require the latest pharmaceutical key to lock and unlock its gatekeeping.
We caution against such a simplistic and narrow view of neurotransmitter isolation and supremacy. Consider the analogy of regulating vehicle propulsion: Though we may program and accurately target rockets and cruise missiles, the human motor vehicle driver still must constantly adjust to ever-changing conditions on the road. For this, he needs a flexible brain, one that works and adjusts on a dose-independent basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as necessary…
In the search for answers to the travails of ADD/ADHD and others disregulation disorders, we run into dichotomies. One side says we are ill, that we can’t help it. It wrests control from us as individuals and conscripts us into the cult of the neurotransmitter, swallowing the sacraments, and worshipping technology and science we can barely fathom. The treatment is an impersonal neurophysiological modification of biochemical imbalance.
The other side blames us for wanton lack of discipline, possible moral turpitude, and certain selfishness and self-absorption. It accuses us of suffering from the “Me generation” dressed up as medical diagnosis. Its treatment is spiritual transformation.
The very process of diagnosis and classification presupposes and manufactures a kind of “Panama Canal” disorder with man-made locks and levels and artificial controls. All in the name of regulation, safety, and commerce. Then “bracket creep” floods us in a continuous flow, and the force of reality carries us downstream with the feeling we are drowning.
What to do? Assert our will… or take a pill? Be passively ill… or engage in active drill to rectify the problem?
We insist that disregulation is the problem, and that correcting disregulation solves these paradoxes.
Patients engage in EEG biofeedback training to relieve symptoms. They enter treatment in distress, and leave in transformation. People are not reducible to chemical formulae, response times, or neurosynaptic uptake. They are whole individuals. In the process of becoming again whole, they undergo transformations in entirety, integration, aliveness, and personal responsibility. We may change electrical settings to encourage their brains to learn more effectively, but they are active participants who are very much “in charge.”
Whether they hide behind “ill” or “will” in the service of dysfunctionality obscures the real issue: a disregulated brain cannot be as “response-able” as it wants to be; and the disregulated state depletes the brain of its natural wants. When given the right information — its own functional information — the brain wants to want, on its own. That is the essence of will, and it is the best way, where possible, to heal ill.
We have all encountered overly selfish people. When we have to deal with such people routinely, patience wears thin, and our abilities to serve and sacrifice in the face of limited appreciation and often unrealistic and excessive demands can be sorely tested. The self-centered person interprets things in terms of his own needs and desires. Such a person tends to be short on empathy and compassion, especially in situations where these responses are needed and expected by those who depend on him. An extreme form of this behavior is called narcissism. In clinical psychiatric and psychological terms, narcissism involves excessive self-admiration or self-centeredness and an overestimation of one’s personal abilities, characteristics, and worth. Narcissism is considered a personality disorder, and those individuals who display prominent narcissistic strains typically face substantial difficulties in social and occupational adjustment. Ironically, one advantage of narcissism is a strong ego and often the ability to withstand adversity and rejection, but there are invariably great costs. Narcissists have great difficulty sustaining satisfying relationships and maintaining their reputation, integrity, and reality orientation. They are also subject to God’s disapproval and suffer a loss of his favor and rewards.
Narcissism and selfishness revolve around the core attribute of entitlement—the sense of privilege, inalienable prerogatives, and the immutable “right” to do or receive anything that they desire. When these characteristics are predominant, we recoil in amazement at the unabashed egotism that the person’s behavior, attitudes, and false sense of entitlement convey. We think, “What makes him think he deserves this? What gives him the right to…? How dare she think she is entitled…?” We typically respond by marveling incredulously at the person’s brazen insensitivity reflected in his displays of entitlement, and we shake our heads at how this overly selfish individual somehow has failed to recognize how others react to his distorted sense of privilege. Paradoxically, most of us fail to notice our own less obvious sense of entitlement and the ways that this insidious form of pride and greed can pervade our outlook and interfere with living intact.
My mother used to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” She often intoned this short homily when she encountered someone who was experiencing obvious misfortune. Her list of hardships included people with gross physical anomalies, victims of tragedy, and even people displaying socially inept or unacceptable behavior. I admired my mother’s ability to temper her tendencies to judge with her penchant for displaying compassion for others. I highly esteemed her capacity to identify with another’s misfortunes and to have empathy for even those who were remote and so dissimilar to her.
As I grew more mature, I began to recognize that people who display gross and even abhorrent behaviors and characteristics are potentially what I—and every human being—might also manifest, were it not for God’s grace. I am not suggesting that I am (or you are) guilty of overt abhorrent transgressions. I am, however, confessing that I have within me an active narrative that continually seeks to self-justify, excuse, or minimize my selfishness, rationalize why things should go my way, and why the world (and God) is unfair when things don’t unfold according to my plans and desires. I am eerily similar, spiritually speaking, to a former patient who confided to me blithely that she was “a legend in my own mirror.”
Put bluntly, I have reached an awareness that I also struggle with a sense of entitlement. This is one of the greatest challenges to living intact. To feel and act entitled is not simply a personal flaw, but it is endemic to the human condition. It emanates from the exigencies of survival and development and extends, in some people, to a blind and self-deceptive prison where the attitude that one is being victimized and that the world owes us favors chips away at satisfaction and productive living.
The sense of entitlement is at odds with God’s intent for us, and it is the antithesis of humility. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” is a functional insight that helps govern the narcissistic tendency to go one’s own way, whatever the consequences. The insight allows us to choose humility over entitlement. It is easy and tempting to point the finger at prominent examples of entitlement (e.g., Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan, etc.). Ironically, whether or not we engage in recriminations of the behavior of the rich and famous, as previously indicated, it is common for us to overlook and underestimate our own entitlements. Every time we make an excuse or feel sorry for ourselves, we are exhibiting a type of entitlement. Excuses and self-pity are the narrative’s way of declaring that we deserve better results or more consideration.
On a psychological level, entitlement serves to gratify the ego, protect against the fear of abandonment or insignificance, and reinforce the fragile and often dissipating sense of importance and belonging. On a spiritual level, entitlement asserts one’s sovereign privilege and right to leave God out of matters or to usurp his supremacy. To claim rights or privileges or to assume outcomes favorable to oneself or one’s desires that are not biblically based is to challenge God’s authority and sovereignty. The self-protective aspect of the natural self leads into this deceptive folly. Let’s examine the underpinnings of entitlement:
The need for attention is obvious and ubiquitous. There is little else that competes or compares with attention and recognition. Attention is a powerful reinforcer: it mollifies doubts, soothes anxieties, testifies to our existence and importance, and imbues a sense of power and control. Moreover, one can even command attention without the conscious assent of others (refer to chapter 6).
It is no wonder, then, that this need for attention becomes exacerbated and serves as a powerful manipulative tool in the repertoire of those who require it and feel that they deserve it.
It is natural and human to feel hurt when injury or rejection occurs or when circumstances offend one’s sense of fairness. After all, people do take advantage, injustices seem to abound, and the “right” thing to do often succumbs to greed, pride, and other failings.
However, some people seem career bound as victims. They project a fragile and extensive vulnerability to all manner of pings, intrusions, and slights that occur routinely in life. Moreover, they collect these grievances and injustices and wear them as armor to shield against an ever-suspect environment that does not respect or cater to them. The persisting sense of being wronged finds social validation in a society where selfishness and “me” culture is exalted and reinforced. The attitude of “look what they’ve done to me” can become an insidious part of a person’s narrative. When this happens, external events assume a conspiratorial cast, and the “victim” continuously looks for confirmation of perceived injustice.
By definition, privilege means entitlement—to an advantage, right, or benefit that is not available to everyone. Belonging to a select club, moving to the head of the line, getting the best seat or parking space, even being allowed to speak first all convey a sense of importance, indicating that one is “special” and more significant.
Going “first-class” is about more than comfort and taste: it reveals a need for reinforcement that one truly matters. What better way to demonstrate this than by buying or demanding “the best”?
One of my friends has a saying: “I’d like to buy you for what you’re really worth and sell you for what you think you’re worth.”
In the quest for importance, recognition, and acknowledgment, and as a defense against feelings of inadequacy, many people aggrandize themselves and their abilities.
The tendency to romanticize the past can also play into these fantasies. The older I get, the better I was captures the illusory memories of past grandeur.
An inflated sense of self-worth is the bedrock that justifies entitlement. The subconscious reasoning says, “Since I am worth a whole lot, then this should be obvious, and others should defer to my higher position in life’s pecking order.” Unfortunately, this way of thinking (even subconsciously) undermines a right relationship with God and, thereby, satisfying and appropriate relationships with people.
True self-worth comes from basking in the love, recognition, and security offered by the Almighty. What other people think and see is far less important. When you follow God’s principles, his light shines through, and others do see him in your actions and attitudes (Matthew 5:14–16). Ironically, caring less about what people think, but caring very much for them and what God thinks about them, leads to increasing your esteem in the eyes of others.
Entitlement is especially offensive when it manifests brazenly and conveys a sense of superiority. Displays of egotism or the demand for preferential treatment turn off most people, and such behavior can elicit a backlash of resentment and desire to remove the self-entitled person from his vainglorious pedestal.
More frequent than the overt and excessive narcissistic displays are the more subtle ways that entitlement creeps into attitudes and patterns of behavior. Some manifestations are:
Feeling sorry for oneself is a good way of masking entitlement. When you feel sorry for yourself or rue your misfortunes, you are taking the position that you deserve better. You are thereby at odds with the universe and specifically with God’s way of running things. To reiterate: excuses and self-pity are the narrative’s way of declaring that you deserve better results or more consideration.
It may seem a stretch to see that resistance to change is a form of entitlement. Some people like the status quo and are reluctant to “fix things that aren’t broken.” However, no one is entitled to a fixed universe. Things do change, and we need to adapt, not only for survival, but in order to better serve others.
A startling example of how resisting change favors entitlement is the continuing human tendency toward racism and ethnocentric attitudes of superiority. Besides intolerance, resistance to change can assume subtle disguises that partially hide the sense of entitlement under the cloak of affection. Life is full of loss; though losing a loved one, a friend, or a pet may cause anguish, we are not “entitled” to keep them. No one “owns” anyone else. Friendship, love, family, possessions—these are all gifts from God, and he is sovereign in his will to bestow them for a while and then to take them away. This applies to our very lives as well as the events, people, and acquisitions we so easily take for granted.
To assert privilege over others implies that one is more worthy and deserving. The hierarchy of privilege assumes that one has done something (even by association) to merit preferential treatment. A degree of pride in one’s work and accomplishment is laudable. To support oneself and stand on one’s own feet financially and emotionally is indeed commendable and admirable. However, no one survives alone, nor does anyone meet and rise above life’s challenges and obstacles without repeated support from other people and from God. Some people, in their hubris or arrogance, refuse to acknowledge this truth.
An excess of pride or self-sufficiency can turn virtue into entitlement. When self-reliance becomes a preoccupation, it lends itself to idolatry of one’s own abilities and verve. Success is much sweeter and more realistic when it includes the credit due and needs of others.
I know so many people who don’t figure God into their lives. I am torn about this, because I care for them. Admittedly—with embarrassment—I care for some more than others—the ones who are “good people”—moral, generous, sensitive, caring, attractive, and admirable for their traits and achievements. These folks inspire my respect. Regardless of their virtues and deeds, however, their failure to include, credit, and fear God speaks loudly of their sense of entitlement. This is because God’s absence in their lives leaves only their own determination and self-absorption to account for their results.
To disown God, to dismiss him from the equations in one’s life is an entitlement to the worship of selfhood. Rejecting God is tantamount to taking full credit for one’s role in the universe. It is a smug and naïve oversight that leaves a person vulnerable to the forces of evil. The rejection represents a pernicious disguise of entitlement.
Endemic to entitlement is the expectation of favor or preferential treatment. People who feel entitled expect certain treatment from others. As you may recall from chapter 11, expectations form the bridge between reality and desire. Persistent discrepancies between greater and lesser expectations lead to dissonance between one’s model of what the world should be and one’s experience living in it.
For those with a hefty sense of entitlement, such discrepancies are often not tolerable. In response to reality and in order to assert and reestablish privilege, people who feel entitled often strive to establish and retrieve what they believe is their due. As you can imagine, the collateral damage is substantial.
The entwinement of expectations and entitlement is also represented in everyday life of “normal” people. The current economic downturn has set many back on their heels. While it seems reasonable for people to expect employment suitable with respect to their training and experience, it is commonplace for young people to expect that careers will be handed to them. Many college students assume that, upon graduation, they will find well-paying jobs in their chosen field. When their expectations are not fulfilled, they are prone to become resentful and sometimes to remain in denial about the economic realities.
Whereas entitlement has a fitting place in our lives and our expectations (For example, a warrantee entitles you to repairs on certain products. Marriage entitles people to legal and personal privileges. Children are entitled to be protected and nurtured.), it can take over like a cancer and destroy your ability to live intact.