August 25, 2002
Recently I have been confronted with reoccurring themes of entitlement, obligation, and boundaries.
The first two appear to be dysfunctions of the virtue of sharing. Dysfunction may be too strong of a word, however, in the context of boundaries. If a friend continually takes you out to dinner, or buys you gifts, it is taken as an act of generosity at first. But if it is often repeated with no opportunity for return, a sense of obligation ensues.
If a person has any sense about the virtue of sharing, they will feel some guilt at being something of a “parasite”. If the giver expects something in return for his or her gifts or services, then it is not unconditional giving – there is a sense of entitlement, of getting something deserved in return. This is not restricted to gift-giving; it can happen between an employer and an employee. I work in government, where people are frequently underpaid, and this sense of entitlement rears its ugly head quite often. Two things should be borne in mind. One, non-attached giving is always more satisfactory than attached giving. In a microcosm/macrocosm sense, ideals and goals that have worldly attachments are also not as satisfactory as detached ones; one is always left wanting. The sense of entitlement in such mundane circumstances is often a reflection of the internal dissatisfaction. The second thing to be borne in mind is the big picture. Using the job analogy, one may be underpaid, but they might have airtight job security and excellent benefits. Sometimes one has a lenient employer who does not nickel and dime you for every minute worked. If one is really very unhappy and cannot rid themselves of the sense of entitlement, then it could be a sign of boredom or stagnation, in which case the best choice is to leave and find a more satisfactory situation. It should be remembered that whatever the new situation brings, it will be lacking in some area—no situation is “perfect.” To quote Amy Zerner: “Dissatisfaction results from wanting things to be as they are not. Feel the goodness in things staying as they are.”
In the case of obligation within relationships, this is almost never healthy in the long term. For example, a relationship with an alcoholic often becomes an enabler/victim scenario. One enables the alcoholic when they pick up the slack for their neglected responsibilities. Often this is because the consequences of the alcoholic’s non-responsibility negatively affects the enabler. As a result, the alcoholic/victim will always assume they will be bailed out of any trouble they cause, and do not cease in the offending behavior. In short—they never grow as human beings. The only way to deal with such a situation is to cut bait and let this person make their own way. Here we come into the domain of boundaries and detached love—you love someone enough to let them make their own mistakes. Support is one thing, taking over someone else’s responsibilities is another. The Divine/Universe never gives us more than we can handle. If the alcoholic fails, he or she has no one to blame but him/herself, which is the hardest thing to accept.
I will take a side trip here into issues of control and accountability. Sometimes we become enmeshed in another’s problems to feel good about ourselves. This is another ego attachment. I call it the “martyr syndrome”—one does good works simply to show the world that they do good works. Ammachi has pointed out that selfless giving comes only from God; all other giving has some kind of selfish motive. One of the great mysteries of human relationships is that sometimes one is more compassionate in cutting someone off than in continuing this kind of control/controller bond. Without animosity, you can let someone go, that they may find their way and not use you as a crutch. They may not learn, and may find others to fill the same function, but that is not your concern.
Being too concerned with another’s problems is often the consequence of avoiding self-knowledge. We seek to fix the problems of others, because we see reflected in them our projection of the problems we need to fix within ourselves. Projections are dangerous, and cause people to think that they must know what’s best for another human being. They rob that person of the chance to “do it themselves”. Pity is a deplorable feeling because it falls into this category. Pity says, “I feel sorry for you because you’re not like me.” It’s a hugely egotistical statement.
Speaking of “like me”—have you noticed that a definition of “normal” could be “like me”? We consider those who are not like us to be “strange”. This again is a problem of ego attachment—we identify ourselves with our myths and our worldly status, and do not see the Universe as a whole. Our lives become the model for the lives of others. “We are actors playing a role so well that we have forgotten that we are actors.” It is necessary to develop Self-awareness, to be able to discriminate between Self and worldly persona. Even if we are not fully Self-aware, this insight can be monumentally helpful in “performing right action.” No longer burdened by those illusions, we can look at other human beings with detached compassion.