Originally published March, 2007 – Pacific Eye Magazine
Entitlement vs. Merit
I heard a story once about a farmer and a boy. The farmer was working his orchard one day when he noticed a boy standing alongside the fence that separated his orchard from the main road and his adjoining neighbor’s property. To avoid the boy’s stare, the reticent farmer resumed his work, but was clearly shaken by the boy’s gaunt face, sullen looks and grimy appearance. What was the boy doing here and where had he come from?
No longer able to elude neither the boys stare nor his own nagging empathy for the obviously starving child, the farmer approached the boy at the fence, smiling as he inquired, “How ‘ya doin’ son?”
“I’m okay,” was the whispered reply.
Silence hung in the air as foreboding as the chain link fence that stood between them. Finally the farmer continued, “Where ‘ya from?”
Ignoring the farmer’s question, the boy asked one of his own. “You own them apples?”
“Yep! Every single one of ‘em.”
“They sure look good.”
Touched, the farmer plucked three apples from the nearest tree, reached over the top of the fence and gently dropped them down to the boy’s soiled hands. He stuck two of the apples into his pockets and took a sizeable bite out of the third succulent fruit, smiling up at the farmer as he mumbled an eager and barely audible “Thank you” between bulging cheeks.
The boy left, but returned at least once a week to the orchard from that day forward for several seasons. Each day he returned, the farmer would hand him three ripe, juicy apples from his flourishing orchard. Words were never exchanged, just the unspoken promise of apples whenever the boy appeared at the fence.
Six seasons passed since the first visit. The boy, now a strapping young lad with wide shoulders and a toothy grin appeared at the fence one lovely summer afternoon as the tired, bent farmer worked in the waning shade of a slowly diminishing orchard.
For an hour the boy stood at the fence, waiting for the farmer to approach and bequeath he now believed was his endowment. But the farmer continued to work, unperturbed and unaware of the boy who stood anxiously at the fence. Anxiousness became agitation; Agitation became anger that eventually boiled over when the boy shouted, “Hey! How ‘bout them apples?”
Startled, the farmer glanced over at the boy, smiled and despondently replied, “I’m sorry son. There’s no apples to spare this time.”
“Wha’ d’ya mean there are no apples to spare?” the boy seethed. “I see some on this tree right here,” the boy pointed through the fence at a tree with sparse fruit.
“I’m sorry, but I need them all this season son. The long winter and the brisk spring ruined most of the crop. If I don’t sell ‘em all, I’ll lose my land to the bank.”
“That’s not my problem. You’ve given me apples six straight years. I never had to ask. You just gave ‘em to me. The first time you gave ‘em to me I thought it was pure luck. But every time I came back, you gave ‘em to me unconditionally. I’ve been counting on ‘em ever since.”
“And I’ve never asked you for anything son. But now I’m asking you to understand.”
“Well if you don’t give ‘em to me, I’ll just climb over and take ‘em.”
The farmer watched, dejected as the brawny young man scaled the fence with ease, withdrew a bag from his pocket and proceeded to pluck a half dozen apples from nearby trees.
Satisfied, the boy climbed back over the fence and stole a final menacingly glare at the defeated farmer before he took his leave. He stood by and watched the fleeting image of the young man, wondering what he had done to merit his young friend’s illicit maltreatment.
Metaphorically speaking, the boy in this story in many ways illustrates what I have witnessed on many occasions. It is part of a rampant and growing trend in the societal web woven by decades of reforms, injustices, inequities and improprieties. Movements formed by civil rights groups and leaders aimed at transforming a privileged society with elitist agendas, may have cracked open the once uncompromising dam of equality over the years, but those same pure agendas could similarly have spawned and strengthened the societal quandary now vaguely described by many as a “Culture of Entitlement”.
More and more we live in a society that believes in handouts rather than a hand up. Earning a living through hard work and perseverance has become an alternative to government, church and social subsidy, citing unemployment when the unemployment is at its lowest rate in a decade according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor report as of March 9, 2007).
Janet Jackson may be all hips and sass on the dance floor but when she asked the question, “What have you done for me lately?” she may not have been aware of the subliminal contrasts between entitlement and merit and the blurred line drawn in the sand between two different schools of thought.
The culture of entitlement is advocated by those who believe society owes us, while the culture of meritocracy is championed by those who seek honest rewards for their diligent labor.
On the one hand, there are those who believe the government, our schools, our clergy or any organized group and in some cases individuals, are almost expected to give them something for nothing except for the mere fact that they have needs and we as a society must give based on our inabilities not our disabilities. On the other end of the pendulum swings the standard embraced by idealists, a category that may aptly include our ancestors who navigated the expansive Pacific in search of a dream. Driven by sheer determination and a yearning for something undiscovered, something unfettered and a desire to find an environment in which to excel, our forefathers spanned the width and breadth of the Pacific, long before “the heavens erupted” and western enlightenment encroached on our thoughts and culture.
Our ancestors fought against victimization by poverty and reliance. We, their posterity, may soon become victims of our own affluence. It is manifested in young football and rugby players who have a false sense of entitlement instilled by a generation of successes witnessed through a cathode ray tube where propaganda is piped into their homes with the message that they don’t need to do much to be the star on the team, “because I’m Polynesian. I was born to play this game.” This entitling attitude is rife in communities where Polynesian NFL stars were compelled to work hard for their goals. Sadly, that portion of the “Formula to Success” is often shelved when the message is relayed to our youth by ESPN commentators who boost their ratings through random clips, not lifestyle tips.
There is something to be said of hard work as demonstrated by our own customs and traditions. In ancient fa’a Samoa, the young untitled men and women of a village lived by the dictum “O le ala I le pule o le tautua” (the path to power/authority is paved by work). In order to receive a coveted matai title and prove their worth to their families and the village, men of the ‘aumaga and women of the ‘aualuma worked tirelessly to assist matai in carrying out the day-to-day operations of the village in order to ensure its stability and prominence. Their diligence and perseverance in performing these assigned duties often resulted in the bestowal of a matai title with which he or she would then be counted upon to assist in crucial decisions on behalf of his or her family and the village.
The organization of the matai system and the essential role played by the ‘aumaga and ‘aualuma entities in the social structure of a village work much like that of any well-oiled machine; do your job and you will be justly rewarded. The fundamental flaw encountered by many in the modern-day iterations of fa’a Samoa is the entitlement deemed by some matai once they remove work from the meritocracy equation. Should there be a limit on the amount of work we do once we have attained a level of comfort? Conversely, what message are we relaying to our youth and children if we entertain the idea that we are owed something without lifting a finger grasp it on our own?
Entitlement is a perplexing, multi-faceted quagmire that cannot be easily explained; neither can it be pushed aside. I would venture to substantiate the argument that it would take years to scientifically evaluate and to fully explain the immediate and residual impacts of entitlement and merit on our society. What matters most is that we clearly understand the onus borne by our youth to perpetuate our cultural identity of hard work, resolve and ingenuity. That same identity can and will be nullified and further marginalize our youth if we allow entitlement to creep into our thoughts, our vernacular and our way of life. It is a complicated social issue that can be minimized through constant regulation of thoughts, opinions and ideals, punctuated by education and the positive reinforcement that hard work can only result in the enhancement of our situation while capitulating to entitlement may result in the loss of our merit and identity.