a spirit of humility in an age of entitlement

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is the age of entitlement, and few things cause more difficulty for college graduates today than unreasonable expectations and overreaching self-esteem.

Self-esteem, as it turns out, is not actual ability. That’s why our department changed its mission statement a few years ago from developing confidence to developing credibility. We found that student had lots of confidence. What they needed was reasons for it.

Paul Harvey (no, not that Paul Harvey) is a researcher at the University of New Hampshire and his three year study shows that those in their 20’s and 30’s feel a much greater sense of entitlement than other generations.

It’s evident in their approach to a job, where they take credit when things go right, but blame others when they go wrong. They are less happy in their work, more likely to cause conflict, and intolerant of criticism. “A great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations. They often feel entitled to a level of respect and rewards that aren’t in line with their actual ability and effort,” he says.

So the first lesson they encounter after college is that things don’t always go their way. Then they begin to understand they aren’t as capable as they were led to believe. (Yes, colleges contribute to this.) Today’s economy just speeds this realization, which may be a good thing.

Only one thing makes it clearer, and that’s the gospel itself. We’re not sufficient to claim anything as coming from ourselves, as the Apostle Paul put it. The biblical injunction is quite clear: get over yourself. The gospel requires us to recognize our need, accept Christ’s payment for our sins and rest in God’s grace. We see our limitations with more clarity. Humbled, then, we can move to the next step.

That would be gratitude. Even our giftedness is rooted in His benevolence, but it is in our weakness that his glory shines. We think about this and we become more aware of the contributions others make to our lives. They too are his gifts.

It’s easy to miss this, and so entitlement becomes presumption. One young man spent several days with us. We tried to prepare foods he would eat, because he’s a vegetarian. We tried to engage him in conversation too, but he seldom answered with more than a couple of words. Then he left without saying thanks. OK, he said thanks, but he said thanks for our saying it was good to see him. He wouldn’t even have said that if we hadn’t literally stood in his way as he left.

He is an extreme example, of course. And maybe his self-esteem is too low, rather than too high. But both extremes are the opposite side of the same coin: thinking too much about oneself. And both are rooted in a disappointment about how we are or were treated.

In either case, unrealistic expectations make it hard to appreciate the ordinary. Yet we are surrounded with ordinary people and ordinary opportunities. It’s where God hides the miracles. And Christ said we must be faithful in the little things before we can be trusted with the big ones. We must be thankful for them too, for the smallest kindness as well as the largest opportunity. Such gratitude springs from a spirit of humility, the antithesis of the pride wrought by human praise or self-indulgence.

Yes, the economy is tough. That’s one reason it is even harder for a manager to hire a young person, since the last one he hired wanted more money and more time off, even thought he didn’t even know what he was doing. In the end the resume may not be as important as the attitudes it reflects. And while many young people know how to say thank you, they often don’t know how to be thankful.

Cicero said that gratitude was the parent of all virtues, but he was wrong. It starts with humility: we can’t be thankful until we get over ourselves.

It’s tougher in an age of entitlement. But it’s still necessary.

This is part of a series, “it’s a jungle out there.” It focuses on college graduates in a tough economy. Search “jungle” on this blog for other essays in the series.

I hope current and former students (as well as educators and parents) will reply to and share this post, encouraging a conversation that will help me understand and respond thoughtfully to this issue. Thanks.

3 thoughts on “a spirit of humility in an age of entitlement”

  1. This was great Mr. Metts. I really needed to here what you said in this! I think you completely hit the mark when you talked about how low and high self esteem are on the same coin. They are both rooted in thinking about oneself too much. I wish I could write more about why I liked this but I don’t have time.

    Thanks again Mr. Metts!

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