Contemplating The Word “Deserve”
Points to define, deliberate, and dredge
I’m a word man. I love word exploration, and I like to discover origins, structure, and usage. I am no etymologist, though I find myself studying them from different angles and playing with them.
If you’re a regular here on Medium, you’re a wordsmith like me. You’re an artist. You like to flip pancakes in the air that land back in the pan, gracefully. You stack puns in beautiful treasure boxes. You probably know some wordplay or grammar jokes that make me laugh very hard. You are my people.
Word interpretation is a fun game for me. If I restructure a word, I create new meanings for myself, and I like to share. Sometimes people are curious about what I have to say with re-created words. Sometimes my attempts are comedic flops. I like to sandbox and workshop with my small group of friends.
“Shazaam!” I think, priding myself on my illusory ownership. “I coined a term!”
In my ideal fantasies, other people love this as much as I do. We’re quote makers, not parrots.
“I don’t get it,” they’ll say.
It might help to picture me standing there like a four-year-old, exuberant with his unique ideas, holding his hands out like a game show host saying.
“Do you get it? all the while cackling or intrigued in my head.
Four-year-old jokes are always interesting. Support your little comedians.
I’m not four though. My wordplay isn’t for everyone.
I remember trying to tell several people about how I wanted to write a long essay discussing the use of conflict-centered words, and how they influence perception, discourse, and violence in society. One friend yawned during my presentation. I stared in confusion.
“Sorry, I just haven’t had enough coffee yet,” they said.
Fair enough. I’m not going to have a winner all the time, right? In music, you have to stay fresh, and word work is no different. As writers, we play with ideas all day and even in our dreams. Keep the notepad next to your bed friends. McCartney wrote “Let it Be” after a dream he had, and he outlived his mates. The secret is the notepad.
Plus, we know we have to keep cranking. There’s all this self-imposed or external pressure we’re so keenly aware of. We know as musicians or artists the phrase “You’re only as good as your last hit” holds. We want to be a McCartney.
I’d never claim I’m a hit-maker, just a person who overshares. Time spent daydreaming for me doesn’t make any money. Ideas though, stimulate me and give me the potential for great content. Hits are nice! Money helps.
We must create to win and lose to learn. Sporadically, I notice a word, and I want to write an essay about it. Not because I’m glory-seeking or need the validation, I just want to share. A discussion on the word deserve seems in order.
Deserve. What do we deserve?
Deserve is so close to dessert in form, that I tend to categorize them as the same thing. I deserve a smile. I deserve an éclair. I deserve a cup of excellent coffee, a periodical, and a sunrise. I deserve a break. I deserve a vacation. I deserve a drink, right?
When you rotate it 180 degrees, we can discuss guilt, shame, and punishment.
“He deserves to go to jail and never see daylight.”
It’s a cruel and ugly word then, isn’t it? Not if it’s justice. Justice is quite subjective. We all think we know what it is and someone else is judging us for our interpretation.
Yet deserve, when broken down easily becomes another dirty word. “De- serve.” Uh oh.
Walk with me here. Eat lunch if you need to.
Am I selfish now because I deserve? Who am I doing a disservice to when I think I deserve something? Selfishness is so subjective.
To add context, I had an excellent conversation about this with a date recently. We had gone for a walk in the nature park and she wanted a dip in the local stream. Unbeknownst to me, she had worn her suit under her dress. I hadn’t brought my trunks and there were families nearby, hiking the various trails in broad daylight. This was no time for skinny dipping, so I conversed with her from the heavy-leaved, allergy-inducing shoreline.
My date swam in the murky, suspicious creek. My heart filled with contentment for her.
“I never get to do this without playing lifeguard to my kids,” she said.
I could tell she was enjoying the cool water, the freedom, the escape from all that is burdensome, yet beautiful to us as parents. I was living vicariously through her.
“You deserve it!”, I said.
“Hmm”, she announced. “That’s probably not what my father would say” she bluntly retorted amidst splashes and swirls.
Then she talked about her father and how she thought he’d view my statement. He had been in the military, had a strong Judeo-Christian work ethic, and was now an executive.
“What would he say?” I inquired.
“We don’t deserve anything.”
Who put this idea in his head? Certainly not me. She also mentioned how some perspectives from Christianity slant toward self-sacrifice, selflessness, and earning, yet we never deserve what’s offered.
I just wanted to get out a pool lounger and sip on some ginger brew, because of course I disagree. “Doesn’t the promise of eternal bliss, or torture for that matter, imply that we deserve it?” I said. “By that school of thought, aren’t we earning either a reward or punishment?”
We discussed it amidst the sunlight, dragonflies that landed on my toes, and frothing agricultural runoff. I suggested perhaps he falls into thinking that doing something for yourself “de-serves” others.
Don’t do something you like or need, you’ll either be a selfish lout or miss an opportunity to be of service to someone else.
Well, we all deserve a little something. We can’t always be working, working, working, with no guarantees. Maybe he thinks (and taught his daughter) that our worth is determined only by your dogged determination to never feel pleasure, contentment, or rest. His statement is a damn shame. Maybe he told her that doing something you think you deserve de-serves someone else, or everyone else.
Sure, other people deserve our service, it can help them feel appreciated. Let’s not get extreme though, that’s where the drop-offs in water are. There are unseen sharp and rusty things down there. The balanced thought is we can serve others and serve ourselves because that’s healthy. We can wade, paddle, float. Healthy people clap for us.
While she was talking, the memory of my proposed essay came in.
It’s of course true that when we feel we are deserving, we’re self-centered, maybe selfish. Just a little bit, naturally. Pile that in with our understanding that earning and compensation are linked. We already have a notion of compensation before we begin anything. Motivation is funny that way.
Speaking of motivation, perhaps some people only do things because they know that they’ll “get what they deserve” on the other side. Alternately, they purposely punish others thinking the punishment will right a wrong, or repair damage. It’s hard for me to place myself in these mindsets, without thinking heavily about the meaning of the word.
Why do we say “I deserve this, or you deserve this?”
When I tell someone they deserve something, it’s because I recognize their effort, their suffering, or, I just know what they like. Too many people have hard lives and too many punishing voices from the past in their heads. Some need punishment, and luckily, I’m not the arbiter. I like to soothe. That doesn’t make me a people pleaser or diplomat. Thankfully not an executioner, either.
The bedrock of my argument is we all need rewards. We’re all deserving. Some are more reward oriented than others, and we can easily differentiate between what rewards motivate different people. Ask them!
Furthermore, in philanthropy and volunteerism research, there is a strong correlation between service to others and self-fulfillment. Turns out we want to feel good, and we serve others because it can accomplish that objective. We deserve to feel good, and so do those we serve.
So are we de-serving them? Nope. We do a disservice to others if we attempt to serve what we think they want or need without asking them first, that’s all.
Still, I have another question. If I serve myself I can’t serve you? Horse hockey.
De-serving and self-care (the most overused word of the pandemic) go hand in hand. If these concepts were personified by people you met at a party, it would sound like this:
“Hi. I’m self-centered need. This is my partner Do Good, and my cousin, I give a crap about myself.”
As if we should feel guilty for boundaries, health, or self-gratification that saves what shreds of sanity we have left.
If you want to give back, I’ll pat you on the back, and I’ll tell you not to overdo it. You don’t deserve to be exhausted, frustrated, or hollow.
Back at the bank, I share with her.
“Let’s not beat ourselves up about what we deserve. I want you to take care of yourself. I like seeing you happy, believe it or not. I don’t think you’re de-serving anyone as long as you’re not harming others.”
“Hmm”, she muttered again.
“Ponder too that others can and do feel harm from you doing something you deserve, even when you’re doing nothing to hurt them. It’s not you, they’re jealous. They’re stuck and your feeling good makes them feel bad. Perhaps they can’t associate with people who get to feel good.”
Their mindset must be “Surely people who feel good are not good people.”
I was hoping that she understood that the negative and judgmental thought process of these folks will typically culminate in them placing an unfair label. We see this a lot in toxic, codependent relationships, as well as with control freaks. That’s a technical term, by the way.
I watched her chase the water striders with her fingers. Hopefully, she wasn’t guilting herself or feeling ashamed anymore.
Here’s a suggestion. The next time you think you don’t deserve something, stop and take a second to determine your motives. Is this progress for you to deserve something? Will you feel guilty or afraid of what it means if you deserve? Where does that come from? Telling yourself you never deserve something, no matter what is self-harming.
If you’re self-harming or punishing others all because of this powerfully subjective word, see a professional- just not me, because I’m deserving some off-clock time right now.
Zachari George, LCSW