Monday, June 6, 2016

Rewarding Good Behavior

"Bathed in the Light"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

This weekend I saw a TV report about a local high school graduation. A young woman who had been accepted into Harvard University was asked how she felt about going to college at this prestigious university. Her response struck me as being somewhat “odd” when she said, “This will make my father very happy, he has always wanted me to go to Harvard.” She never talked about how happy or how honored she was about the college she will attend; instead she talked about how happy this will make her dad.

I’ve been thinking about that graduating senior’s response in that TV interview. I personally know many parents of elementary school children who already have their child’s college in mind. I even know some parents of kindergarten children who have begun “mapping out” what college their kid will attend and they are putting away money to make it all happen.  

On the surface this sounds very noble and even sacrificial but there may also be an underbelly to these concerted efforts at investing in their children’s future. After all, if you have a child with a Harvard degree it gives you something to brag about at work.  

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 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 parent with enough money to send a kid to Harvard to practice 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 - the practice of “rewarding good or expected behavior to get the desired results.”

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 not love even though it may look like love. It may, in fact, be narcissism.  

I think that there are lots of people today who are always performing in order to win the approval and affection of others. It makes me wonder how many people actually experience real love but rather something that only looks like love: rewards for doing what was expected?

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.

This morning I noticed how I, along with the whole world around me, was so beautifully bathed in the brilliant light of the morning sun in the desert skies. 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 didn’t reward some with its light and refuse to shine on others. It 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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