The World Owes You Nothing.
Updated: May 15, 2021
“It means that no one else is living for you, my child. Because no one is you. Each person is living for himself; his own happiness is all he can ever personally feel.
When you realize that no one owes you happiness or anything else, you’ll be freed from expecting what isn’t likely to be.” – Harry Browne, “A Gift for My Daughter” | December 25, 1966
Alice Walker, in the book “The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart” (2000), writes, “Healing begins where the wound is made.” This sentiment is where my conundrum lies. Because a truism that I’ve recently had to accept is that wounds may never be tended where they began, or from the person who caused the injury. We can’t expect that. We aren’t owed that.
Today, I came across a letter, written by Harry Browne, a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate. He published this in a newspaper column on Christmas 1966 as a gift for his 9-year old daughter. I am not going to publish the entire thing in this post (the letter, in its entirety, can be found here), but I want to focus on some of the points that particularly touched my soul, and in all honesty, are an eerily relevant complement to the rant I posted yesterday.
When I hear the word entitlement, I automatically think about rich (white men — or just white, period) folks who have had privileges that have shaped their worldviews in a way that leads them to believe that things like money, jobs, comfort, security, etc., are owed to them. That said, I do not view myself as an entitled person. I do not exist in a world that has shown me that people who look and live like me are owed anything — quite the contrary.
That said, upon further reflection, I had to check myself and realize that I do hold on to a sense of entitlement — on a more spiritual or moral level. And it’s affected my life in the most disastrous way. Browne, in his letter to his daughter, writes: “No one owes me moral conduct, respect, friendship, love, courtesy, or intelligence. And once I recognized that, all my relationships became far more satisfying. I’ve focused on being with people who want to do the things I want them to do.”
Well, damn. So simple, yet so profound.
Yesterday, I was feeling some kind of way, and lamented, here, about the fact that my ex hasn’t shown me the courtesy (that I feel is owed to me) of facing me, in person — palpably facing the mess he created. In my mind, a phone apology doesn’t cut it. It’s been three years — he owes it to me to face his demons. Me.
There’s that word again — owes.
But when it all comes down to it, he doesn’t owe me a damn thing. Sure, we weren’t married, do not have children or any real attachments — but, you’d think at the very least I was owed a proper ending. 5 years count for something, right?
But, I am not entitled to anything from him — not even respect. Thinking about this really hit me hard. But woke me up.
Brown confesses, “A great burden was lifted from my shoulders the day I realized that no one owes me anything. For so long as I’d thought there were things I was entitled to, I’d been wearing myself out — physically and emotionally — trying to collect them.”
I think that many of us hold on to the notion that if we do our best, treat people kindly, give of our time and love — we are owed some basic courtesy or respect. The truth is, we aren’t owed anything. Coming to terms with this truth can be the stuff of anxiety, depression, panic, and grief — all things that I have been wrestling with over the past few years.
Additionally, Browne writes, “Each person is living for himself; his own happiness is all he can ever personally feel“. That said, what would give me the idea that someone has a responsibility to exit his comfort zone to enter into a situation that will have no immediate benefit for him? Would it be the courteous thing to do? I think so. Is it the right thing to do? It depends on who you ask.
But, is it necessary for him? No. Because he owes me nothing.
Here’s the kicker, though — Browne cautions, “But once you realize that people don’t have to be good to you, and may not be good to you, you’ll learn to avoid those who would harm you. For you don’t owe them anything either.”
This is hard. Self-care is important — necessary in fact. Coming to the realization that maintaining expectations of and relationships with folks who really don’t have your primary interest in mind can, in fact, be harming you (mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually), means a choice has to be made.
Either make peace with it, or move around. You’ve got to tend your wounds yourself. Because the fact remains: no one owes you anything.
And if the latter is what is decided, you owe no explanation.