Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Culture of Meritocracy


I just had a conversation with someone I hadn’t seen for quite some time and asked him where he had been and how he was doing? He “somewhat jokingly” quipped, “I’ve been busy making money so I can send my kid to Harvard.” The thing is that his “kid” is only in the 5th grade and my friend’s response was only “somewhat” said in jest.

In fact, I personally know many parents who already have their elementary school children’s college in mind and are working to make it all happen. On the surface this sounds very noble and sacrificial but there may also be an underbelly to these concerted efforts of investing in their children’s future.

I am reminded of an article I read a while back about how child-rearing in Western culture has been steadily moving toward an ethic of meritocracy rather than being guided by an ethic of love. The article went on to explain that what may appear as parental love for their children may actually be a subtle form of parental narcissism disguised as love. The article suggests:

Parents steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement.
They glow with extra fervor when the child studies hard, wins first place
and gets into a prestigious school.
But this sort of ‘love’ is often merit based.
It is not simply ‘I love you’
It is ‘I love you’ when you perform the way I expect you to perform.
In many ways these parents regard their children as some sort of art project
insisting that their kids go to college and get good jobs
that will give the parents status and pleasure.

As I reflect on it, I don’t think you need to be a middle class parent with enough money to send kids to college to engage in the practice of a “love that is not love” but rather a veiled form of subtle narcissism. My guess is that much of today’s society is trending toward adopting the values of a culture of meritocracy.

As I see it genuine love is a gift, it is grace – Love is not just a tender feeling but rather an act done on behalf of another’s welfare and not something you do for your own personal gain or gratification.  When we “reward” others who perform according to our own expectations, that “reward” is a love that is not love.

The problem with meritocracy is that it can easily look like love. That dad who is working hard so he can send his “kid” to Harvard may well be doing so out of a self-sacrificing love for the welfare of his child, or it may not be so noble. He may ultimately hope to see his “kid” sporting a Harvard degree because it will give the dad something to brag about at work. So in a culture of meritocracy it’s always a good idea to examine our motives for the good we may be doing for another.

I think about something the renowned monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, once said:

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves
and not to twist them to fit our own image.
Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves in them.

The more I think about how parental love can take the form of subtle narcissism, the more troubled I become. There are so many people today who seem to always be performing in order to win the approval and affection of others. It makes me wonder if, even from our earliest days of childhood, some of us have never really known love at all, but something that only looks like love.

As I sat in my garden this morning I noticed how I, along with the whole world around me, was so beautifully bathed in the warm light of the morning sun on a crisp winter day. I didn’t have to call out to the sun and beg for its embrace, nothing around me was expected to perform in any way for the sun to shine its rays. The sun shone on it all- the good and the bad, the fruitful and barren, the successful and the imperfect - everything bathed in the light.

I thought to myself, this is what love is.

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