* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

2 Chronicles 26: Entitlement, Fear of Irrelevance, and Spiritual Leprosy

I am fairly talented at a few things. Yet, when I see a real expert doing something impressive -- something that person has most likely practiced doing for thousands and thousands of hours -- there are times when I think, "I wish I could do that." Maybe that's indicative of typical human dissatisfaction, or maybe it's based on some imagined system in which some areas of expertise are more valuable than others. Perhaps we sometimes devalue those things that come easily to us, or those things that are expected of us, and convince ourselves that we need to diversify, expand our areas of competence, continually become more. The implication is that we are not enough -- that, whatever we are able to do today, we are on the brink of being irrelevant.

Consider 2 Kings 15, in which the historian runs through a series of rulers of Judah and Israel spanning about 50 years in one rapid fire chapter. The first of these is Azariah, or Uzziah, who gets a much lengthier treatment by the Chronicler in 2 Chronicles 25. The Hebrew scriptures claim that Uzziah was king of Judah for 52 years, but it may have been closer to 40 years. Historians often have a difficult time making biblical chronology line up with what is known about actual history. All told, he was a pretty good ruler -- until (according to the story) being king wasn't enough.

Uzziah saw that people were cared for in Judah, maintaining the country with a sense of justice and integrity. He brought a few neighboring nations under Judah's control through military force, which brought in more resources in the form of taxes from those conquered peoples, and Uzziah used Judah's resources to build protective towers for his people and to provide cisterns for vinedressers and farmers. Then, one day, at the height of his strength, he decided that he would do the job of the priests, and (again, according to the story) was struck with leprosy that lasted the rest of his life. Due to the stigma against leprosy at the time, he was ostracized from his people.

Maybe Uzziah was acting out of a sense of entitlement. Maybe he thought, "I'm the king; I can do whatever I want." Or maybe he believed at some level that he was irrelevant. It seems far-fetched, given everything that he accomplished for his nation, but some of the most powerful people develop unexpected self-esteem issues. Whatever his motivation, Uzziah's actions robbed himself of the satisfaction of ruling Judah, and it robbed the people he served of his competent leadership. In fact, looking ahead to the brief account of Jotham (Uzziah's son) in 2 Chronicles 27, Jotham was an upstanding fellow, but he didn't have much moral or ethical influence over the people he ruled. When Uzziah made a misstep, it affected a lot of people.

Some would say that this is true of all leaders -- that whatever a leader does has an impact on a lot of other people. I would say that this is true of everyone. We just notice it more in the lives of more visible people. None of us is irrelevant, and as long as we are connected to other people, we cannot become irrelevant. A society does not thrive because it is comprised of individuals who can do everything equally well. A society thrives because many people who have individual skills and talents are meaningfully connected to one another. Forging deeper connections with people is more beneficial than entertaining fears of irrelevance.

At the same time, we are also in danger of believing that we are entitled to special treatment. We don't like thinking that we may be slighted or cheated out of some opportunity or privilege. Uzziah may have thought that he could do things that other people shouldn't be allowed to do, just because he was king. Some people today think that they deserve special treatment for all sorts of reasons. Others think that their children deserve special treatment, which is a sort of entitlement by proxy, I suppose. Some people are powerful or persuasive enough to benefit from their sense of entitlement. This might even trigger a sense of entitlement in other people -- people who think that they are suffering an injustice because they missed out on some opportunity or privilege. For some reason, we can all fall prey to a belief that we deserve more than we have.

A society cannot support such attitudes indefinitely, though. At some point, we must recognize our own abundance and strive for equity on a larger scale rather than feed our individual sense of entitlement. When we cry, "It's not fair!" about a social injustice, it carries a little more weight than when we are commenting on the circumstances of our own lives. One of the essential ingredients to a commendable society in the Hebrew scriptures is justice, which means that all people are treated equally. Ideally, this even meant that debts should be forgiven after a certain amount of time and that the people of Judah should not keep fellow Jews as slaves. Judah didn't live up to this ideal in practical reality, but throughout the prophets there is a cry for justice and equity. This did not mean that everyone looked out for themselves and defended their own personal entitlement to equal treatment; it meant that people were supposed to look out for one another. The intention was that every individual would be intentional about treating people with equity and compassion.

We are not likely to be stricken with leprosy, but we can suffer a kind of spiritual leprosy -- a weakening of our sense of self and our relationships with other people that can even be contagious. There are some real negative consequences to constantly fighting irrelevancy or defending what we think we deserve. We will always see people who are highly capable in ways that we are not. We will always be able to find some way in which somebody "got away with" something or received some opportunity or privilege that we envy. Being driven by fear or a sense of entitlement will only yield more frustration and anger for us, though. Looking around in our lives for ways in which we can bring equity and compassion forward for others not only engages us in creatively using our unique capabilities in highly relevant ways, but it has the potential to transform the lives of other people. This, in turn, can ultimately lead to a more equitable society, which benefits everyone.  

At the core of every person is a deep awareness of truth, an undeniable beauty, and a phenomenal reserve of creativity. No person can truly become irrelevant. At the same time, no person truly deserves more than any other person. When we recognize the inherent value of ourselves and of every person around us, we can engage our creativity in profoundly satisfying and meaningful ways. We can create something that can never be built from fears about ourselves or a preoccupation with what we think we deserve.

What are you building?

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