If you’ve taken a Sociology 101 course, you’re already aware that meritocracy (a system in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success and power on the basis of their accomplishments and not, like, daddy’s money) is a myth. That is, we do not currently live in a society that rewards merit exclusively – or even primarily – and there are many conflating factors like class, gender, race, etc. that muck up the general premise.
Along the same lines, karmic meritocracy, a phrase of my own creation, is a similarly incorrect interpretation of how the world operates. It applies the above to the concept of character and the popular misconception that good things happen to people who deserve them, and conversely, bad things to those who deserve them too.
I think that belief is false.
Things do not happen because we deserve them to happen. They happen without basis, independent of innate character. There is no level of pre-ordained deservedness within you. Tough, I know, but it’s best to frame this as freeing rather than damning.
Of course, like all emotions, deservedness serves a function when used appropriately. It’s just that it can only ever be helpful in one direction at a time. If all the amazing things in your life are happening because you deserve them, then that must be true for all of the shitty things too. If every time something bad happens to you, you’re comforted with assurances that you didn’t deserve it, then every time something good happens to you, you should also be reminded that its occurrence had nothing to do with your particular constitution.
I’ve received a lot of pushback on this idea. Intuitively, people deserve good things when they do good, and bad things when they do bad. To that, I say…kind of? We expect good outcomes to happen to good people because the chances of this happening are higher than the reverse scenario. But in the same way that buying a whole bunch of lottery tickets doesn’t mean you deserve to win, having a particular accolade doesn’t mean you deserve a particular outcome.
“But I worked really hard!”
“But I performed better than anyone else!”
“But I am a good person!”
Do you really believe that effort entitles you to something? That your aptitudes aren’t primarily a product of chance? That there’s a karmic scorekeeper? That things happen because you deserve them?
Sure, natural laws dictate consequences. If you drop a glass out of a window, it will shatter upon impact. To some degree, life operates in a similar manner. Certain actions precipitate certain outcomes.
But does a dropped glass deserve to be acted upon by gravity? Or is that just what happens?
We can frame this concept within the context of life.
Did you deserve to be born to loving parents? Or, in the opposite scenario, to cruel parents? Or is that just what happened?
One step further, did you deserve to be born? Or is that just what happened?
A feeling of deservedness, or a lack thereof, invites self-assessment. But partaking in karmic meritocracy is nugatory because the contents of life do not measure worthiness; they measure chance. The things that happen to you are not an indication of your worth.
When something goes amiss, we comfort each other by saying “You didn’t deserve that.” And when something goes well, we affirm each other with sentiments like, “You deserve everything you’ve accomplished.” But is that really the case? Or are we telling stories to assert control in a random world? Are we sense-making through pattern recognition?
Do we deserve anything, good or bad, or are we looking for signs to confirm a suspicion (or hope) that we really are the type of person who we think we are?
I want to avoid bad things and experience good things, but I don’t deserve either.
Things happen, or they do not, and this occurs serendipitously. The contents of life measure entropy, not merit.