“Deserve” is a Toxic Word

22 Tamuz 5774

Ursula K. Le Guin, an author I admire tremendously, has one of her characters say this in her book The Dispossessed:

“We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free yourself of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

In the scene in question, the speaker is quoting Odo, the founder of the anarchist community on the planet Anarres, which has rejected capitalism for communalism. Much of the book’s description of Anarresti life looks a lot like the life of Israeli kibbutzim, so to me this is a special book. But that quote above, especially, resonates with me.

We use the word “deserve” in a toxic way far, far too often. Many times, recently and not-so-recently, I’ve seen the word used towards a group as if each person in it were homogenous and exactly like all the other members of that group. I’ve seen that word used to exclude, to shut out, to oppress. The Palestinians in Gaza “deserve” to die from Israeli bombs because they were warned the bombs were coming and they refused to get out of the way; the Israelis “deserve” to be called murderers for defending their borders against Hamas’ terrorism (although the news media often conflates Hamas and the Palestinian people – an inaccuracy that enrages me every time I see it). In the United States, poor people “deserve” their fate because they’re somehow “lazy.” New college graduates “deserve” low-paying jobs because they should have to “earn” their way up. I’m sure you can think of other examples, none of them flattering. And let’s not start on the comment threads on these news items, okay?

I’ve also seen that word used to encourage people to buy things, not because they need them or because the things are especially useful, but to show off how special they must be if they own one of these things. You “deserve” that new car, that diamond ring, that new house, that expensive meal. Why? Because you are rich enough to afford it, and you should be ostentatious about it.

Can the word “deserve” be used in any positive way? I don’t think it can. It’s inherently a value judgment, and a negative one. It’s not based on the individual human being’s personal traits or their actions, but on their group identification or on their material circumstances (which, most of the time, they have only limited control of). And I think this ties into one of the big differences between Jewish thought and non-Jewish thought, for me. Remember that whole thing about “thoughts are not sins, only actions can be sins”? That means we should only be held responsible for our actions, right?

The poor rarely did anything to be poor. Many of them were born into poverty. Many others were victims of unpredictable economic shifts. Those who are members of marginalized groups rarely chose to be part of those groups (converts being an exception). And nowadays, there are very few self-made rich people, either. Most of them inherited their wealth, so they didn’t do anything to “deserve” their wealth. They just got lucky in the birth lottery.

And yet, more and more, our Western societies insist on the “deserving” poor being the only ones who “deserve” to get any help – if any – at all. Who are the “deserving” poor? Apparently, they’re the people who show enough shame at having to use an EBT card to buy their groceries, who drive crappy cars, and who have no internet-worthy machines (smartphones, computers, etc.). If they have an iPhone, they don’t “deserve” any help, apparently.

In what world does the word “deserve” show even the slightest bit of compassion? In what world is the word “deserve” worthy of any consideration?

We all “deserve” an adequate standard of living because we are human beings. We are the children of G-d – Jews and gentiles alike. Life and the support of life should be our birthright. And if it is not, for some reason, then it is everyone’s job to make it so.

I challenge you to go a week without using the word “deserve” or any of its related synonyms. See what it does to your ability to be compassionate when you stop using that word for other people’s situations – and your own.




Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

5 responses to ““Deserve” is a Toxic Word

  1. Dawn Davidson

    In general, I think I’m in agreement with much of what you say, though I think it can be used in a non toxic way, e.g., “everyone deserves an equal chance at happiness.” I agree that the idea of “you deserve this [luxury]” as a selling tool bugs me. On the other hand I myself have been struggling to bring myself UP to a level where I believe that I have inherent worth and dignity “deserving” of compassion and fair treatment. I think that one can deserve things based on actions, such as payment upon completion of work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That struggle you’re having? That’s my exact problem with the word “deserve,” because we’ve attached it to circumstances outside our control as a way to judge our inherent worth and dignity.


  2. ShoshanaR

    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. For me, “deserve” can be used positively to identify basic human rights that anyone should have the reasonable expectation to enjoy. Like “deserving” to have their identity respected and not destroyed for another’s benefit. Like “deserving” to be able to disagree with their partner and still be respected after if things are handled rationally (huge ethical blow-ups possibly aside). Like being able to determine the state and treatment of their own bodies, spirituality, thoughts, property, reproductive or marital status. We are enough. We are worthy of these things. We deserve them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All right, I stand corrected. But my argument is that overwhelmingly, in Western society, the word is not used that way. It’s used to exclude and attack, not recognize good work.


  3. OldCutterJohn

    The concept is toxic and I’ve never used it except in the occasional joke. Even as a parent I didn’t use the concept nor the word — and that’s rare! Doing the math, I’ve beaten your challenge two thousand times over.

    There’s a synergy with my most current profession. I’m a gambler. If a gambler thinks about what he deserves, or about what others deserve, he’s going to be very unhappy. He’ll almost certainly fail besides. God has done some amazing things that have worked to my benefit, but never so amazing that a devout atheist couldn’t continue to deny Her existence. That’s part of Her art, and it’s like that for everyone. A gambler has to avoid reliance on miracles, and a gambler has to avoid a sense of entitlement. They’re both very dangerous pitfalls — not to mention, sins.

    You got me thinking about karma, and the way the word is used. As a consequence of contemplating what you wrote here, I’ve come to recognize that the most common understanding of karma involves a sense of deserving. I use the word to refer to a set of natural laws that’s a superset of the laws of physics. (The laws of karma that are not also laws of physics differ from the laws of physics only in the ease we can’t easily and precisely measure their operation.) It makes no more sense to me to pull the concept of deservedness out of a description of the the operation of a karmic engine (as a magician might pull a rabbit out of a hat) than it does to pull the same concept out of a description of a steam engine. There are many other (philosophers? degenerates?) who think of karma as I do, but I now understand that there’s a lot of folks who are committed to the other view, or who have only a passing familiarity with the concept, who can’t even imagine where we’re coming from.


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