When I was young and complained that things weren’t “fair” my father would tell me that the fair is in September (which is true if you live in Oklahoma City.) Of course, my claims of inequity only rose when I felt I had been cheated. If I had less, I wanted more. If I had more, I kept my mouth shut.
In “The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die,” Keith Payne writes about his research into the impact of poverty. He makes the claim that people’s feeling of inequality, not their actual income, drives behavior and affects health and happiness. In some of the research he uses, the subjects don’t even necessarily have much variation in actual income or wealth, but are convince by the researchers that they are either better off or worse off than others. The people who believed they were worse off made riskier choices, had magnified perception of racial differences, and rated themselves as ‘unhappy.”
There is a story about a man who owned a business. During the Christmas rush, he needed more workers to get the higher volume of product handled, so he hired some people to help for December. These new hires were grateful to have a job and agreed to work for a certain salary for the month. Before long, the man realized that business was continuing to stay strong and they were not keeping up. He hired some more people and put them to work, promising to pay them a fair wage. A couple weeks before Christmas, they were still behind, so the man hired yet another group and got them working alongside the others. Everyone was working hard and product was flying out the doors, but they were still falling behind, so a few days before Christmas the man hired another group, telling them he would make it worth their time to come to work.
The day before Christmas Eve, as he was preparing to close up, the business owner called all the workers together and started handing out checks. The guys that he hired first eagerly opened their checks to find the amount they were promised when they signed on. Looking over the shoulders of their co-workers, they noticed that the workers that came later in the month were also getting the same lump sum as they did. In fact, the people who showed up just a few days before Christmas got the exact same amount as they had. They were hot. They quickly approached the business owner and began complaining that they had worked harder and longer than everyone else, so they deserved more.
The business owner listened to them, then he asked them a question. “Did I pay you what we agreed?” They answered that he had. He went on, “What business is it of yours what I pay the others then? I gave you what you agreed to, I have the right to be generous with these others if I choose.”
You already figured out that I am retelling a parable that Jesus told. I think there is a very simple, yet profound truth here. When we compare ourselves to others we will always be unhappy. We can always find people who have more than we do and be jealous of them. We can always find people who are worse than we are and be proud of ourselves and our behavior. We can make ourselves miserable by looking around and desiring to be in someone else’s shoes.
Like the people who worked from the beginning, I often think I deserve something. That entitlement mentality causes me a lot of pain. When I think I deserve something, I am not grateful for it and I am resentful if I don’t get it all. Both are terrible positions to live from.
However, if I understand that I am blessed beyond measure and see the things in my life as gifts that I do not deserve, I find myself feeling grateful and full. I find myself thriving instead of surviving. I like that.
Jesus told that parable because some of the people he was talking to thought they deserved God’s favor and others didn’t. The truth was, and is, that no one deserves or can earn God’s favor, love or grace. He gives those to us freely because of who He is, not because of who we are. When I remember that I actually deserve to be punished eternally for my sin, I get pretty grateful that I won’t be. What should happen next is I should be gracious towards others and be willing to invest in their lives as freely as God invests in mine. I’m not there yet, but the goal is progress, not perfection. So, I try to continue to be aware of how blessed I am, and use that awareness to bless others. That’s living. That’s the Kimray Way.