Much Obliged

Matthew McConaughey was being interviewed, most likely about his new movie, but what I recall was more about his foundation. It’s called ‘j.k.livin’ which stands for “just keep living” and its goal is to encourage students to make positive life choices to improve their physical and mental health through exercise, teamwork, gratitude, nutrition and community service. High School students who participate in the program lose weight and gain confidence while also improving their grades, attendance and behavior. McConaughey spoke about an interesting ingredient in the program. Each session begins in a circle with kids being asked to tell what it is for which they are thankful. He went on to say that for High School kids it isn’t cool to say ‘Thank you.”


The phrase “a sense of entitlement” has recently become more common  in our conversations.  Ten years ago scholars from seven major universities through a series of nine studies developed a Psychological Entitlement Scale. Using that instrument, another study reported that a person’s sense of entitlement is associated with a wide array of maladaptive and socially-problematic traits, including greed, aggression, and lack of forgiveness and the perception by others that one is hostile and deceitful.  

 To better understand why many college students beleaguer their professors for better grades than they deserve another study was done using that test. The results strongly suggested that what lay behind this was the way the student was parented. On one hand it might suggest that the student felt their parent expected better grades or on the other hand that parents had allowed their student to grow up with out learning about consequences. Some linked this to the self esteem movement of the 1980s which failed to link self esteem to skill development and competency.

Picking up on the Academic Entitlement piece have been those who point to what they called helicopter parenting and overindulgence as the real culprit. They defined overindulgence as ‘giving to children that which looks good too soon and for too long to meet the needs of the parents’. This by their definition is child neglect if not abuse for it derails children from important developmental tasks and from learning life’s lessons.

According to one source, over indulgence companioned by helicopter parenting in an age of psychological entitlement has led to a deficit in spiritual involvement and beliefs. Are rewards usually reserved for those who deserve them? Or not? If you feel like you are entitled to something why would you ever need to say ‘thank you?’ I’m reminded of a word from my father’s vocabulary that I don’t hear anymore. It’s the phrase ‘much obliged’.

Of course the hottest debates about entitlements occur in the political arena. There entitlements are blasted as “an attack on America’s merit based economy and when distributed to the passive, lazy and slothful among us it systematically destroys our work ethic and steals America’s soul.” But when you put a pencil to the Federal entitlement programs under discussion the reality is much different than the perception. For instance 58% are distributed to the 60% of us who make up the middle class. 90% go to elderly, disabled or working households. Around 2% of all entitlement funds go for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. As to efficiency, for instance, where private insurance companies routinely take 17% for administration, 97% of medicare spending actually goes to patient care. The question for me is why we reserve the appelation “entitlements”  for those  alone.

The answer is not what you might think. Of course all of us read the Federal Register. Well, of course we don’t.  But you need to imagine this enormous file cabinet with each Federal program having its own folder. It is where regulations promulgated by Federal Agencies related to their work are publicly reported. The Code of Federal Regulations is divided up into fifty titles and thus the Federal outlays that stir such vigorous debates are reflected in one of the fifty ‘Titles’ and thus are called entitlements. Wolves, school children and banks have their own title. The Panama Canal used to have its own title. When we speak of the tax code, it is in fact Title 26. You can think of that as an entitlement if you want. Actually Social Security and Medicare are only entitlements because along with every other Federal Program they are so codified.

If you are supposed to receive benefits from any Federal program, under this system of codification where promulgated regulations have been reported, someone can’t, without changing the law under which the Federal Agency functions, deny you that benefit.

Our politicians have led us astray. A ‘sense of entitlement’ is much different than a handout or a hand up. It’s really about the sense of privilege. When we think we deserve a grade better than what we’ve earned or deserve special treatment because someone has led us to believe that we are exceptional and better than others.

The fact is that before God we are equal. That doesn’t mean we have equal endowments, abilities or looks. It doesn’t mean we have equal opportunities. Our equality is in our humanity. I’m reminded of the old spiritual that goes “It’s me, It’s me, it’s me oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” I don’t want to rub it in, you are fully aware of the fact to which the Apostle Paul pointed in Romans 3:23. “All have sinned”, Paul says. “All have fallen short of the glory of God”. That’s a universal ‘all’. I particularly like the verse that follows. “ …and all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through the act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus.

How hard it is to say ‘Thank you’. We want to see ourselves as being self sufficient. We are attracted to the call to be independent. And that’s just a lie. We aren’t self-sufficient. No matter how much of this world’s wealth we acquire we will never be independent.  

The good news is that God’s grace is free. And it’s for all. And it’s alone. It doesn’t come with codified regulations and caveats. It’s not a result of our being extraordinary or self sufficient or privileged. It’s not an entitlement. And the appropriate response is to be grateful. As un-cool as it is, we need to say ‘thank you.’ Be careful, you’re liable to slip into my father’s world and say ‘much obliged.’




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