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Let’s talk about the ‘D Word’

OK, as a starting point, I must note that it’s weird to think that I might be writing something that would put me in agreement with the Language Police.

I am one of those annoying free speech absolutists who is not totally sure if even yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater should be prohibited. So this is not about trying to force a language choice on anyone else. This is just about what works for me and the way I see a certain word negatively affecting lives, politics and culture.

So with the disclaimer out of the way…

There is a word that has become so common that it is kind of a staple for most folks when it comes to describing other people, circumstances or the world in general. It is a word that I pretty much never use, and that is a 100% intentional choice. It is the single word that I truly believe has done more to damage people and society than any other collection of syllables. The word is, “Deserve.”

Like many other aspects of my life, abandoning that word is something that began to change when I was in the process of getting sober. You see, most people have no clue that not drinking is the easy part of sobriety. The hard part is digging deep to find, acknowledge and attempt to correct the moral and spiritual failings that are inevitably the root of the abuse of alcohol or drugs. I once had my dentist, who had been a Mormon bishop and who has a sister who struggled with booze, tell me that he felt more raw spirituality when attending AA meetings with her than he ever felt in a Sunday church service. He was right.

That raw spirituality — something that really only comes out of desperation for change — is the root of my disdain for the D Word. The single most important thing I learned from working a 12-step program was that I needed to do the right thing just because it was the right thing and not because I thought it meant I would get some kind of reward.

“Just because you did a good thing does not mean that you get a cookie.”

The other big influence in my word choices was a kind of bizarre book by a, hmmm, let’s just say eccentric-appearing writer known mostly for science fiction. The writer was Robert Anton Wilson and the book is called “Quantum Psychology.” There is a ton going on in the book and a lot of it is pretty weird. But I found the discussions about how we use language at first fascinating and, later, strikingly profound.

Wilson wrote that book in a form of English called E-Prime devised in the 1940s, which avoids using any form of the verb “to be.” E-Prime proponents argue that we should instead use words that describe our perceptions because all we really objectively know is what we, personally, perceive. Everything else is at best a model based on data and arrived at using the scientific method or, more generally, just a guess.

One example that has stuck with me for years was when he wrote a sentence saying that his secretary was a word that begins with B and which I can’t use in a family newspaper. Then he started that over and made it all about perception and what he could actually know. The result was something like, “given the present circumstances and based only on my perceptions without making room for any other explanations, I have chosen to perceive my secretary” as that same word I can’t use.

To many, this will just sound like pompous linguistic gymnastics. Others will object that the emphasis on observation does not leave room for faith (which is just another kind of perception when you really think about it). For this dude, it was all about me, and only me, being responsible for my thoughts, words and actions.

So back to that word I hate.

The truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people, is that no one deserves anything. Period. Is there a great scale of judgement or karma that determines our fates based on our actions? Maybe. Do I get to decide how those scales should read for any person? Not a bit.

When applied to another person, the word “deserve” is a value judgement. In the positive, it denotes merit or reward. In the negative it equates to guilt or shame. Ultimately, there may be some all-powerful personage or cosmic force that has the ability to judge those things. But it ain’t me. And it ain’t you, either. This is one of those things I leave to a power greater than myself.

But, for me, the real damage caused by the word is when we apply it to ourselves.

I deserve a life with more prosperity than I currently have.

I deserve to be loved and adored by that person who has no feelings for me.

I deserve to be admired and respected by those around me regardless of my actions.

Can you see the negative outcomes all of those statements feed? On the low end, the phrase “I deserve” leads to a sense of entitlement. And all of us can see the results of that each and every day as we have to deal with people who have no regard for anyone or anything other than themselves.

Most of this, I am sure, has been driven by people trying to sell us something. Really. They tell you that you deserve something as a way to bypass the common-sense filters that most people are born with and then you end up spending twice what you can really afford on a car or a vacation or whatever all because someone told you that you deserve it.

But there is a high end of the scale that goes beyond entitlement. Because if someone feels entitled to something they don’t have for long enough, then it becomes OK in their warped mind to just take it. Because, after all, they have been told that they deserve whatever it is —money, sex, respect, whatever. And if someone else gets hurt in the process? Well, then they must have deserved to get hurt.

In the best-case scenario, the word “deserve” leads to entitlement. Worst case, it leads to dishonesty and a broken or ignored code of ethics.

There is a more objective verb. It is the one I use and I am convinced it does far less damage.

To earn. “I earned this” is a totally different thought, one that connotes a certain level of objectivity.

But, in the end, it is, for me, all about gratitude. I have written before about how adopting an “attitude of gratitude” has changed my life is more ways than I can name.

No one deserves anything. So be grateful for everything.

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