What do you deserve?

bar-b-q brisketCream rises to the top!” the well-dressed white woman exclaimed as she wolfed down her brisket. I put down my spoon of beans.

What do you mean by that?” I queried.

My mom taught me that and it’s true. If you work really hard, you will be get what you want. I know that because I have worked really really hard to get where I am. I make more money than any of my friends and I worked the hardest.”


A little more silence while she munched on her bar-b-q.

My acquaintance had a name tag which read, “Dr. xxxxx” and had told us earlier in our conversation that she always asked for her title to be added to her name tag. When another person at the table mentioned that her daughter didn’t do that, she said, “Well, maybe she didn’t work as hard as me.”

I summoned up my nerve. “Did you do your PhD while your kids were young?” I asked. “Yes – and there’s nothing like nursing at 2 in the morning while everyone else is out in study groups.” “Wow,” I said, “that must have been tough.” Seriously. Really tough. And I mean that.

Next question: “How did you pay for your schooling?

Answer: “Oh, I did. Every penny of it.

Me: “So you worked at the same time  – or you had saved up?

Her: “Well … I was married at the time.

Me: “That’s great that you had the support of your husband to reach  your dreams.

The myth of being “self-made” is something we need to always challenge, especially when it comes from those of us who were born into privilege. Something in the American independent “master of my own destiny” consumer mentality has convinced many of us that what we have, who we are is our making alone. In some cases, like the “cream rises to the top” woman it becomes an ugly display of self-righteousness, snobbery and privilege.

I want to talk about “deserving”. Did she “deserve” her success because she had worked (as she perceived it) “harder” than her friends?  She had a spouse who supported her financially (which is fantastic if she could acknowledge it was only possible because of him). She was born into a family who could more than take care of her needs – and who may have funded most of her earlier education. This safety net (even unknowingly) is a source of security. She has lived her life in a rich, relatively stable country in which women can achieve higher than many countries in the world. And I don’t know if she has seen the farm laborers working in the fields lately (or been one, as many of us have), but I am wondering if she had been born into one of those families, she might be singing a different tune. I tire of conversations even with my own peers who talk about what they deserve as a reward for their hard work. It’s a privilege and a gift to reward yourself after laboring. You really don’t deserve a trip to the Bahamas any more than anyone else. That’s ridiculous.

So, yes, there is more to unpack here, but those are my thoughts today. What we have and who we are has been made possible by our genetics, our families, our beliefs, our willingness to learn and grow, and our hard work. We are dependent on all of these lines of connection to create our place in the world. And, regardless of how hard we work, what we receive can disappear at any time. It is a gift – and the least we can do is to say thank you.

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5 Responses to What do you deserve?

  1. Deb Seymour says:

    Well-said, Shannon! Amen.

  2. Jenny says:

    Preach it! I have a cream puff in my life and it makes me want to ask every time she says how hard she worked for her current wealth and status . . . “so what do you think of me or of the migrant kids I grew up with? are we just sloths?” Privilege is easy to overlook.

  3. Michelle says:

    very well said. Thanks!

  4. Laura says:

    I have often had a similar thought… That those of us born into stable, middle class families who made sure we were well fed, went to school and were kept safe, were given such a head start and it was purely where and when we were fortunate enough to be born that gave us these privileges. We have a tremendous responsibility to take these priviliges and give back to the world, but we have little to be smug about. And much to be thankful for.

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