Thursday, May 22, 2014

Love and Entitlement

On my 13th birthday, I bought myself a bass guitar. It was a pretty big investment for a kid that age to make, but I was committed to it. At a time in my life when I was just starting to realize that I could actively consume music, I went a little nuts, thinking I could master the art form. My future carreer plans were set: I was going to be a rock star.

As it turns out, the bass guitar has a lot of disadvantages: I had to bring an amp with me if I wanted to go pratice at a friend's house, the bass lines for most pop and rock music of that era are incredibly boring to play, and its size makes it somewhat awkward to transport and play standing up - plus, the "bass player starter pack" that I was able to afford on my saved up allowance didn't include the nicest-sounding, highest-end instrument ever produced. The thing that bugged me the most, though, was that it was just too easy.

My friend Andy started teaching himself guitar. When I'd go over to his house to jam, I brought an old acoustic guitar that belonged to my sister so as not to have to haul my amp. I just used the guitar to pick out some bass lines at first, but Andy taught me to play chords and we looked up tabs on the internet. The guitar had a much bigger initial learning curve, but once I got it, I started feeling pretty good about myself. This instrument had versatility and required skill, not just the ability to play quarter notes on the root of the chord. Gradually, I made the switch, and soon I was asking my bass teacher to teach me stuff about the guitar instead. I'd started out as a bassist, but guitar was my real instrument. This one didn't require membership in a band to be cool; solo guitarists are impressive enough on their own.

Impressing others is important during that phase of life. As a kid who'd spent my elementary school years overseas, speaking another language and living in a different culture, I had a very acute awareness that my best chance for surviving the jump to High School was to adopt all the cool behaviors that I could. I played sports and the guys liked me. I played guitar and the girls did.

I won't say this last part is the whole reason I chose music, but it's not like I was blindsided by it. As much as I was interested in music as a carreer, "I'm buying an instrument so the girls will like me" was one of the primary motivators to my purchase - I couldn't be left in the dust by the guitar-playing guys who were my romantic competition.

Obviously, this demonstrates a pretty immature mindset - what can I say? I was 13 - but it also demonstrates something else: I thought I could earn love. I thought I could gain love from another person by being interesting enough, by meeting enough of their ideal standards, to deserve it.

A few years later, from the comfort of a committed relationship, I mused a little bit about what we call "an entitlement mindset," and how it applies to our interactions with one another.

From my vantage point, at age 17, I thought that anger was generally overused as a control mechanism in relationships. This control-anger arises from a sense that we are owed something - whatever in our minds constitutes "proper" or "appropriate" behavior - from those with whom we interact. Parents become angry when their children defy what they've been told to do, and romantic partners become angry (and hurt) when they feel that the other has broken trust, unwritten rules, or a spoken agreement. Understanding now (but perhaps not then) that I, too, do this, framing it this way delegitimizes the whole process as proper behavior, so much so that I remember telling my girlfriend at one point that she didn't "have the right" to be upset at me over a particular issue (which, obviously, I considered to be an unimportant and unreasonable expectation she placed on me and/or our relationship).

Let's back up for a second, because I came to a prior conclusion that led to adopting that philosophical tenet:

Nobody Owes You Anything

That statement is kinda harsh. It's sobering. And yet, it's become at least a sub-cultural narrative repeated in the growing number of internet articles and blog posts about Millennials, a pointed rebuttal aimed squarely at the collective implicit entitlement of my generation.

Since I usually did my best thinking when not doing homework, I kept right on thinking until I realized this: if no one owes me anything, I can't be mad about not receiving it from them. I don't deserve it by my mere existence, and the only things I could possibly be entitled to are things that I've earned, that I've paid a fair price for, and that someone else has agreed to give me. All other things are gifts of generosity.

"Relational commitments can fairly be understood as emotional (spiritual?) contracts between two parties who determine by agreement that they have mutual obligations to behave lovingly towards one another," I concluded.

Ok, that's not the sum of things, but it's at least a good, analytical working definition from which I can muse onward.

"So, then," the thought continued, "outside of mutually understood unwritten rules and spoken agreements, the two parties in a romance are bound by no obligations of conduct. There are, of course, rules of good practice, but both individuals must be voluntary adherents to these rules if they are to work. Of primary importance in the commitment is what exactly the commitment is."

(And of course, the gifts of relational generosity are just the little perks and bonuses - technically, they couldn't be covered under a contract of mandatory reciprocity, because that simultaneously ruins the fun and makes them involuntary and, therefore, not generous, but they nevertheless should be included somewhere in each relationship.)

Partly because I'm an emotionless jerk who speaks of love like it's an impersonal movement of free market forces, but mostly for other reasons, that girl dumped me with absolutely no regard for my guitar playing skills.

Devastated as I was, I needed a rebound relationship. The next week, I (clumsily, and without clarifying that I intended it to be a date) asked a cute soprano from the school choir if she wanted to go bowling with me that weekend ("we'll both bring a couple friends so it won't be intimidating and we can get to know each other," I thought). Nothing came of that besides a phone call in which I made my intentions slightly clearer and a follow up text from her making vague reference to already being in a casual, unofficial relationship with someone, sort of, and not wanting to "mess it up."

Life went on as normal: I would periodically choose a woman and attempt to show her how irresistibly cool I was in hopes of winning her affections. Earning love. Proving my worth. Trying to show that I deserve her time, attention, emotional energy, and admiration.

Life went on as normal: I would soothe my insecurities by making people laugh, speaking winningly, attending social events and flashing my knowledge of various trivia. My roommates thought I was the bomb. The ladies wanted to get to know me better.

Life went on as normal: I would compensate, and people would eat it up. People enjoyed my company - the palatable, pop-culture-savvy, secretly-bilingual, never-satisfied-with-the-status-quo Stephen was a free-spirited riot, a musical comedian, and a fount of unexpected wisdom. 

But like is different than love. Like is easy to come by, because it's completely non-committal, and it can be earned by doing the right things, looking the right way, having the right kinds of crazy impulses, and being captivatingly relatable. It's strictly related to your public persona - and who's that guy?

Love is giving yourself to another such that they can bear their souls and fear no harm. Love pointedly addresses the ugly, unglamorous parts of a person and chooses, unwaveringly, to honor them.
"Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." 1 Corinthians 13:5,7
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13
Love is tender, unhindered self-sacrifice. Who can ask that of another?

To bring this all around and explain my last post:
I periodically encounter crises of identity, big life transitions, or overwhelming frustrations, and I foolishly turn to people that I hope can understand, care, and help. Some truly don't understand. Some have more pressing matters before them. Some simply don't know how to help. Alone and helpless, I feel worthless.

The solution is simple, though. It's right there:
Love lavishes immeasurable value on its object.

But when my pleas are met with such anemic replies, my heart is gripped with fear:

Love Is Costly, and No One Owes Me Anything

Love is costly, and no one ever will owe it to me. I can't do anything to earn it, buy it, barter for it - I can't even ask for it like it's some small favor. It's one of those "gifts of generosity" - it's all of them. People have to just choose whether or not they're going to love me, and I can't control it.

And that scares the hell out of me, because I don't think they will.

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