What We Merit, part 2

Talent + Effort

Merit, or deservingness, is a product of two factors: talent, ability, natural gifts on the one hand and effort, hard work, training on the other. We'll look at the talent side, and then at the effort side.

First, let us ask: from where did the talent come? Some of it came from genes – that’s luck. Some of it came from childhood experiences. But growing up in the right sort of environment to bring out a given ability is not something the individual made happen. That’s also luck.

The other factor – effort, hard work, motivation, training -- isn’t always possible to separate from native talent. But whether you have the opportunities for training, have good coaches available, and training facilities, have encouraging people around you, and an environment that yields enough reward for hard work early on so that it develops as a habit – that’s all luck. There may also be a genetic component in predisposing some people to focused work and delayed gratification, and, if so, that would also be luck.

Getting to Third Base

There’s a question in this month’s issue of On the Journey, on the theme, Humility. It asks: “In what ways are you, too, guilty of 'being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple'?” The question presupposes a dichotomy between earning your way to something, or just being lucky. But if we look closer, we see it’s luck either way.

If you were born on third base, well, that’s luck.

And if you actually did hit a triple, let’s face the fact that that was luck, too. To be born in a time in which baseball exists, to have a natural talent for hitting a ball with a stick, to have good teachers and coaches and a training environment that was neither so frustrating as to be discouraging nor so easy as to be so boring you moved on to other pursuits -- and then to have the pitcher throw you just the pitch you were ready for, and for your line drive not to go right at a fielder – all luck.

Yet the rhetoric of merit, of deservingness, predominates.

Justice Distributive and Contributive

The more we’ve emphasized meritocracy, the greater our inequalities of income and wealth have grown. Or maybe it’s the other way around: as our inequality has shot up since 1980, we’ve responded by rationalizing it with an increasingly dominant rhetoric of merit. Either way, the rise of emphasis on merit and the rise of inequality correlate.

Distributive justice is needed for fairer, fuller access to the fruits of economic growth and a reduction in inequality. Beyond distributive justice, we need contributive justice: the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to others. It’s contributive justice that fosters the sense that we’re in this together.

Human beings require the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value. An adequate wage is part of that. It’s hard to feel your society really values your work if they won’t pay you much for it. But the point isn’t just redistributing income and wealth. It’s that people should get a good income because they’re doing work that really matters to other people. The distributive justice and the contributive justice need to go hand in hand.

As Sandel writes,
“The fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life. The dignity of work consists in exercising our abilities to answer such needs. (The Tyranny of Merit 212)”
Robert F. Kennedy understood this. Campaigning in 1968, he said,
“Fellowship, community, shared patriotism – these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.”
They come from
“dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures.’” (RFK: Collected Speeches 385-86)
Politicians don't much talk that way anymore.

What We Merit

What do we merit? Suppose the answer were: nothing. Merit is a pretense. The supposed distinction between luck and deservingness collapses under scrutiny.

There are certain spheres of life where the pretense is necessary. When it’s time to ask the boss for a raise, you go in and make the case for how you deserve it. But later, when you're back home, in a moment of calm reflection where you can step back from your work life and can view it in your spiritual, holistic capacity, then you can appreciate that, really, there is no deserving. It’s all grace. You just happened to have some skills – including the skill called “motivation” – and you just happened to live in a world with market demand for your particular skills – and just happened to have the boss and the company that you do.

Now: Can you hold on to that spiritual truth even as you return again to the sphere of markets and work? It’s like the capacity to play a game -- parcheesi or gin rummy or chess -- while at the same time knowing that you’re just playing a game. Or like the capacity to watch an engrossing movie, while a part of you retains the consciousness that what you’re looking at is just lights projected on a screen. In the case of games and movies, it's pretty easy. In the case of merit, it takes a special spiritual maturity. As Max Weber observed,
“the fortunate person is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience their due. Good fortune thus wants to be 'legitimate' fortune.” ("The Social Psychology of the World Religions" [1915])
To be able to hold before you unwaveringly the insight that your good fortune really is just good fortune -- really is utterly undeserved -- to never forget that for a moment -- even when you’re in the middle of an intense round of the game called, “demanding what you deserve,” – that is a difficult spiritual challenge.

I regularly bring myself back to this awareness that it’s all grace, that none of it is deserved or earned, but that bit about “never forget for a moment” is beyond me. I do regularly bring myself back to remembering, but that’s because I do regularly forget.

This might be your first glimpse of seeing through the illusion of merit – the first time it came to your notice that the distinction between deserving and lucky is illusory. So I invite you to hold on to that. Don’t let it slip away. Rest in that new way of seeing, and imagine what it might be like to live that way – with awareness that merit is a fiction, a game you are sometimes called upon to play, but which you recognize isn’t real.

If you imagine holding that awareness in your mind, what difference would that make for your life? For one thing, if you’re sharply aware that it’s all luck, then you’ll be less caught by surprise when the luck changes. Market shifts can make your particular skills no longer in demand. A sudden accident or disease can make your body no longer able to play the violin, or hold a scalpel steady – or can make your mind less able to concentrate. In the vagaries of fortune, if you’ve thoroughly grasped that your success is not deserved, then you’ll be prepared to see that your failure isn’t either.

And something else. Not only do you not deserve your failure, but you’ll more clearly see that other people don’t deserve theirs.

Under the meritocratic ethic, my success is my own doing, so other people’s failure must be their fault. Meritocracy thus corrodes commonality. It traps me within the delusion that we aren’t in the same boat. It says I built my boat, and you built your boat, so there’s no particular reason I need to be concerned if yours is sinking.

But if I see my situation as wholly an undeserved grace, then I can imagine a new and harsher grace that might put me in someone else’s shoes. (Ram Dass, after the stroke that left him wheelchair-bound, called it 'fierce grace.') And if I can have that clarity, then my life turns in a different direction, turns toward a different task.

My task is not to out-compete others for the prizes of success and status. Nor is it to facilitate my children in out-competing others. My interest shifts from the prizes available only to the winners to restoring the dignity of all work.

There is a possible world in which everyone, whatever their talents and training, can meaningfully contribute their work to our shared public enterprise, and meaningfully contribute their voice to democratic deliberation that forms that enterprise. It will be no easy thing to get there from here. It will take, at best, several generations to reverse the effects of the last several generations.

Meanwhile, here in the microcosm of a congregation, we practice. Week in and week out, we embody a communal life without meritocracy, where we stand together on ground of equality, where everyone can meaningfully contribute to our shared enterprise, where we learn together an ever-deepening appreciation of grace and our inherent solidarity. Week in and week out, we are demonstrating to the world a better way.


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