On the weekend, a friend noted that they are experiencing so much joy from people across Melbourne as we come out from lockdown. The exceptions are mostly a category of people who are angry and entitled. That expression struck a chord with me as it is a pattern occurring more widely in our lives.
We all have expectations, hopes and dreams. An entitlement is something further than a mere expectation. It is a right to see something occur. An entitlement is a literal privilege. As a status, entitlements come as of right without the trouble of effort or the need for qualifications like courtesy or ability.
I’ve lived a privileged life and I have very high expectations. At times I find myself drifting these expectations into entitlements. Surely I deserve success? Surely I should be recognised and rewarded? Don’t I get more respect? Life has a way of consistently reminding me that entitlements are rare and few. The obstacles are the work.
Yet around me I see increasing warning signs of entitlement. Some are familiar. Expectations that a voice has priority and is decisive in discussions, on issues, or in conversation. A lack of consideration of and courtesy in the work that others are doing to provide service, to support community or to keep the wheels of life turning. A focus on the individual and the personal over wider community obligations.
Some are much more dangerous. Cars that go through red lights, white lines and stop signs for the convenience of the driver. People that push in and won’t share space, a challenge in a time of social distance. People who think the rules of a community don’t apply to them or don’t extend to others.
We live in a network of social norms. Perceptions of hard fixed entitlements rarely accommodate the subtle mutuality and adaptability that make a community work. We must remember that rights come with with responsibilities. Any lawyer will tell you the worst client is one who has a point of principle to prove, because the absolutism of principle rarely reflects the parallel commercial, moral and social responsibilities. Those responsibilities are to others and entitlements exist in these complex webs of mutuality. What we can do and what we should do are different things.
The path from a sense of entitlement to anger is a short one. Once something is of right, then people defend a perceived injustice and do so fiercely. Social media has nicknames for those who angrily enforce their sense of entitlement, because the pattern is predictable. We regularly see the many forms of rage from road rage, to fury at customer service through to the trolling of social media.
The path to anger is not inevitable. It is a choice to react in that way. Viktor Frankl reminds us that between stimulus and response we have time for thought. We react angrily because we presume that others are infringing our entitlements. We react angrily because we presume a threat or disrespect. In most cases, others are surprised to discover we have any sense of entitlement at all. It is always worth questioning whether the expectations you hold are shared by others. In a diverse, distributed and fast moving world, fewer expectations are shared that you expect. You cannot presume a shared context. To paraphrase a famous aphorism, given the choice between malice and misunderstanding, it’s better to assume a misunderstanding.
Another element of any anger to assess in such a situation is at whom are we really angry. Zen Buddhism counsels that anger is often a project of our disappointments at ourselves onto others. Like Frankl, Zen masters like Charlotte Joko Beck ask us to refrain from the instant emotional response and take time to let matters clear before we act. Asking “what am I experiencing now?’ in a moment of anger or intense emotion can provide suprising insights. I often discover that my anger is a reaction to my own failure to act – to prevent a harm, to communicate more clearly or to manage a risk. I am not defending a right. I am protecting a frightened ego from the consequences of its own disappointment.
Allowing distance and presence, seeking first to understand and focusing on communication before emotion, unravels the intensity of our anger. It also unravels our expectations and entitlements. We discover that connected in webs of mutuality what matters is not our perception or even our legal rights, but the foundation of shared understanding and the shared norms that follow.