I’m deliberately late to the discussion of Elliot Rodgers’s homicidal spree. If you haven’t read any of the variety of excellent pieces discussing his misogyny, and how this horrific event relates to the threat of violence that hangs over every woman’s head, you should do that before you read anything more here. (Feel free to post links to your favorite pieces in the comments.) It’s important, and it needs to be said, and heard: Elliot Rogers killed seven people and injured 13 more out of a rage based in the fact that women were not giving him the attention (read: sex) that he deserved. While it is uncommon for men to kill people out of this sense of frustrated entitlement, it’s absurdly common for men to make verbal and/or physical advances on women whose attention they feel entitled to.
Which is where I want to go next. Never setting aside the need to address rampant misogyny—nor, for that matter, setting aside the urgent need to address the fact that the US has a rate of gun violence that far exceeds that of, well, pretty much anywhere else that isn’t actually a war zone—leaving these important matters in place, I want to point to one more thing. The sense of entitlement itself.
Elliot Rodgers was not furious just because he couldn’t have what he wanted. After all, almost all of us go through life simply accepting that we’re simply not going to have everything we want. However much I might long for an original Monet, there will never be one hanging on my wall, and I really have never given any emotional weight to that sad fact. That’s just how it is. But when I feel I deserve something, that it is rightfully mine and it is being denied to me, then the anger starts to set in. Elliot Rodgers felt entitled to sexual attention from women, and his fury came not from the fact that beautiful women were beyond his reach, but rather from the fact that he wasn’t getting the women he felt he was supposed to get. Of course, a big part of this problem is seeing women as objects for someone to obtain, rather than individuals with their own needs and desires. But another part of the problem is the idea that wanting something is somehow equivalent to being entitled to having it.
Now, it seems in this country that when people complain about entitlement, they are generally complaining about folks who expect to have health care even if they’re not working, or expect to earn a living wage for unskilled labor, or think that their birth control should be available without cost under their health plan. But you know what? I happen to think that people are entitled to health care, to education, to a wage that doesn’t force them to choose between rent and food. I don’t have a problem with those entitlements, nor with Social Security or Medicare. I genuinely believe that a civil society does best guaranteeing people certain basic things.
But somehow, while a whole lot of folks are ready to blame others for their sense of entitlement to, say, not dying of a treatable illness, these same folks are perfectly ready to tell you that they deserve a mansion or a sports car or a tropical vacation, because they have worked hard for what they have. But you know what? There’s a big difference between enjoying something that you are privileged to have, and declaring that you deserve that privilege. No one deserves a shopping spree or week in an Alpine village. Which is not to say that people shouldn’t have those things, or enjoy them. But the moment that you move from a place of gratitude for the gifts of your life to a sense that the world owes you the pleasures that you crave, you have taken just a step down Elliot Rodgers’s terrible path. Because the more you feel that you deserve, the more you will resent it when those things don’t come to you.
And “Blessed are those who piss and moan because they can’t have everything they want” said no great religious leader ever. Buddhism teaches non-attachment, the understanding that we can’t truly hold to anything. Islam teaches the importance of charity, the notion that some percentage of what is yours doesn’t really belong to you, as does Judaism. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” or maybe “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” either of which works here. A person whose life is founded in gratitude for what is given, and in an ongoing quest to share gifts with others, does not to arm themselves and go on a shooting spree.
Of course, there are precious few of us who are aching to go out and shoot up a bunch of people because we aren’t getting what we want. (Thank goodness.) But there are a whole lot of us who waste a whole lot of time and energy fuming about what we don’t have, and trying to get more of what we think we deserve. What would happen if we just started with the assumption that whatever it is, we are probably not entitled to it? That hot woman at the bar? You don’t deserve her. The dumpy middle-aged lady at the table across from yours? You don’t deserve her either. You also don’t deserve a brownie , a flat-screen TV or a pedicure. Which is in no way to say that it wouldn’t be great for any of those to come into your life. But when you start to view the good things in your life as privileges, as gifts, as grace, then it’s harder to be sullen about what you don’t have, and easier to share what you do. Not only are you less inclined to shoot people, but it also turns out that life is a lot more pleasant.