Is It Too Much to Ask?
I recently listened to David Brooks speaking at Q on the topic of humility. I made a note when he said, “If you sample some of the commencement addressees being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.” It seems that the task is to make the world a better place for you chiefly. While that sounds like a value hatched by Baby Boomers and passed along to the next generation, the roots of it are found thousands of years ago in a passage from the book of Numbers.
The tribes of Israel had managed to be obedient to God and Moses for only three days until a group of outsiders who early on attached themselves to the people began to stir them up with thoughts of why they deserved more than the miraculous food they were receiving. While a small number, these outsiders (called rabble) had a voice and had studied the people enough to know even miracles after a couple of days are followed with, “What have you done for me lately?”
They remind me of the late community organizer, Saul Alinsky, who wrote in Rules for Radicals that organizing is the process of highlighting whatever is wrong and convincing people they can do something about it. The organizer, especially an outside organizer, must first overcome suspicion and establish credibility. Next, the organizer must begin the task of agitating: rubbing resentments, fanning hostilities and searching out controversy. This is necessary to get people to participate. An organizer has to attack apathy and disturb the prevailing patterns of a complacent community life where people have come to accept a situation: “The first step in community organization is community disorganization.”
Organizing people around their seeming minor discontent is naturally easier, isn’t it? Rabble organizers have antennae for people who have come to feel deserving but impotent, and they stir them up – not necessarily to a boil but enough to make them grumble when they once had rejoiced.
On what did the rabble focus? Not on hunger but dissatisfaction with the variety of food: “At least we had free fish in Egypt…Is it too much to ask?” They used the tool of relative deprivation to compare what they had with others – even if those others were still slaves in Egypt.
Relative deprivation compares what we have with those similar to us. When we read about the super-rich, it is more of a distraction than a cause for torment. It is entertainment. Instead, we compare ourselves to people who have a little more than we do or we envision our life and work really being about our personal fulfillment and convenience. All dissatisfaction begins with comparison – either to someone else or to what we imagine would give us the happiness that is ours by right. It begins in the vague feeling that someone who may have once been generous is now withholding something from you. It begins with “this is unfair,” and “I am being cheated.” The rabble are the sworn enemies of gratitude, and it is gratitude they need to attack right away.
Relative depravation is not the same as godly ambition or the desire to make something better of yourself or your circumstances. Neither is it taking advantage of an opportunity. Instead, it is the corrosive dissatisfaction that, instead of creating healthy change, it only destroys the soul. It is what creates entitlement and eventually an enslavement to anger, resentment and envy.
This ancient story has just as much application today. The fate of those outside voices stirring us up to discontent and complaint about what we have from God is just as true now. It may take longer to have an effect than it does here with the quick and dramatic death of those who incited the grumbling. Yet, the end result of manipulating people to believe they are being short-changed by God or to create dissatisfaction for no good purpose is still the same. They may not physically die from a plague, but their souls wither and they end up in the same place – the grave of craving. The grave of relative deprivation. The grave of envy.
Tragically, the effect of their work remains for the rest of the lives of that generation of Israel. They could not stop what they had started – dissatisfaction and entitlement. They could not restart what they had stopped – gratitude, obedience and wonder.
We all have rabble in our lives. For each of us there are insistent voices that whisper or shout, “Just a little bit more and you’ll get what you deserve.” And, sadly, we sometimes do.