Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Deserve Thinking: A Root Cause of Violence

Greetings friends,

I received a letter from a friend recently. I enjoyed considering and answering his question and I thought it might contribute if I shared it here. His questions and comments are in italics; my answers are embedded in plain text.

Hi Jim,

Would you be willing to help me out if this mental box I am finding myself in?

Yep! I feel excited and pleased that you asked because I would love to contribute in this way.

I was discussing the concept of "deserve" with my girlfriend last night. At one point she said "My son deserves anything his heart could ever want, but I know that he won't get it because that's the way the world is". This is paraphrasing, but I am now able to connect with her need for her child's well-being, and also that she is mourning that life is not always full of ease.

I feel touched hearing your expression of empathy...

The difficulty for me is that we discussed my friends in Africa. She asked me if I thought they "deserved" the lot they've been dealt. I find it difficult to find my way out of this conundrum. On one hand I think that the deserve concept alienates us from our feelings and even can make the issue seem external-so it is harder to connect with our needs, but then I also say "no, they DON'T deserve that!"

How can I reconcile the concept of people deserving good things in their life and NVC?

I hear your eagerness to understand important distinctions around the deserve concept in NVC.

For me, deserve is the most pernicious and dangerous of all of life-alienated communication and is at the root of the structures that perpetuate violence. Deserve implies:
1. Belief in a single, absolute code delineating what is right and what is wrong.
2. A judge that can determine whether or not a behavior or belief is right or wrong within the code.
3. A judge with the institutional power to mete out punishment for "evil-doers", those whose behavior or beliefs are found lacking and therefore condemned by the code.
4. A system of institutionalized punishment and submission to enforce, through coercion, the dictates of the code and the judge.
5. A population willing to capitulate and submit to that power.

When I hear someone say, "My son deserves everything his heart could ever want," the first thing I want to do is translate that into feelings and needs, like I heard you do. Something like, "Sounds like you really value your son's well-being and you really want him to thrive, is that it?"

And when I hear, "do you think your African friends deserve the lot they've been dealt," I want to transform that as well: "Are you feeling curious about how I feel about the life conditions that my friends find themselves in? Are you feeling concerned about my well-being as I connect with what life is like for them? Are you concerned about their well-being and access to resources to fulfill their basic needs?"

Then, I want to divorce myself from the life-alienated concept of deserve; I want to de-link behaviors and beliefs from punitive or manipulative consequences. No one deserves to suffer because no one has ever done anything wrong. The existence of a singe, absolute code is an illusion perpetuated by "the domination system" as a tragic expression of the need for order. Fighting about which is the one right code has been the root cause of so many wars!

The observation, I think, is life conditions arise for people based on a wide and deep variety of factors. Being born in poverty just happens; sadly, every few seconds. This breaks my heart, because I have a need for universal well-being. There are structural causes for this and strategies can and will emerge to address this systemically. This is the heart of social change work. NVC can help us to manage our heartbreak and despair through empathy and life-affirming mourning, freeing the energy to creatively address the structural problems perpetuating suffering.

And I want some understanding that all humans have a birthright to the fulfillment of all human needs. A birthright is way beyond deserve; a birthrights is universal, like needs, and shared by all regardless of geography, behavior, capability, beliefs, values, or identity. Simply stated, by virtue of being human, we have a birthright to the fulfillment of our needs. I want to contribute to that fulfillment as compassionately and effectively as possible.

I wonder if this distinction, deserve vs birthright, adds to your clarity? I wonder how you feel hearing it and if you would be willing to share your reactions.