We live in a time of "great expectations." In its day, Charles Dickens' novel by the same name had an easy to understand moral and message. Today I'm afraid our culture expects big, wonderful things to happen, just "because." After the challenges of the recession, We the People begin to think we "deserve" everything, like blessings, benefits and any number of goodies—expected to flow from government or anyone with "means."
Back to Dickens' classic book. In "Great Expectations," one overall message comes through: Don't chase after empty, expedient values. The story is about growing up, though the author suggests that becoming more mature might not lead to much of anything. It becomes a matter of personal choices and responsibility. Some "get it," and some don't.
Dickens conveys a sense of an ongoing wrestling with a question of what grownups should be doing in life, and with themselves, in the day-to-day world of opportunities and challenges. In our culture the theme seems to be "I am here, so there, and I want something for free."
In America these days, grown-ups appear to be obsessed with conveying an image of striving for great things, hoping for the best and then sinking into confusion and despair when things don't work out perfectly. They should know better, but they keep repeating the process.
Here's where I think our world is getting more off-track: Wanting and rationalizing, full of great expectations and eager to buy promises, people
often compromise. Then, the more they do it, the easier it is to keep skipping goals, stretching the truth and taking the easier way out in life.
Governments love hyping great expectations. State lotteries are big examples of this, offering false hope and big changes for a few bucks. As I have noted in other columns, lotteries are also easy and slick ways for politicians to, in effect, tax poor people. A large number of lower income people tend to play lotteries more often, so it's a sneaky way to get revenue from them. Politicos prefer selling such schemes with fake facades such as "Our Schools Win, too." Once hooked and rationalized, those addicted find the habit is tough to break.
When Mega Millions jackpots are in the news, more people tell themselves that maybe there's a chance, so what's a few bucks? Over time, the expectations are more distorted, and sometimes depressing. Often the big-time winners of huge payoffs squander their riches and become worse off than they were before they first "invested" in lotto tickets.
Justifying the freebies
Recently there was lots of media focus on a young woman in Michigan who was exposed by a Detroit news outlet. She won a cool million dollars last fall in the state lottery and was later found to be still receiving "food stamp" assistance, which is now provided on plastic debit cards.
When confronted by the facts, the woman appeared unfazed, explaining that she didn't really win a full million bucks. Since she took the lump sum payoff, it was "only around $700,000"—and after taxes a mere "half that," she said, expecting empathy. When the reporter pressed the issue asking why she continued to accept state aid, the winner defended herself by saying she was still "not working." No, just resting on taxpayer money.
There were overblown expectations there, for sure. Citizens also expected Michigan officials to be smart enough to cut off the woman's aid payments after she was all over the news winning the lottery, but that turned out to be wanting too much. Only when the story hit the media did the bureaucrats fix the problem. I wonder how many more similar cases exist across the USA.
State of gimmie
The other day I heard another disturbing story about expectations and rationalization. A survey was quoted, noting that some 20 percent of those polled admitted to doing a "dine-and-dash" at least once. A dine-and-dash is going to a restaurant, ordering food, eating it and taking off without paying the bill.
I can't fathom how anyone can do such a thing with a clear conscience, but in our "gimme" world, plenty of Americans explain away the bad behavior. Consider such views as "I deserve it," "I've been a customer for years so this won't hurt" or "They can afford it."
This kind of thing hurts people. And when the national view becomes "where's my freebies?" we can't afford it either.
Maybe I expect too much, wanting things to change for the better before it's too late. I'm sure every generation feels that things are falling apart and too many others want and expect something for nothing. Maybe I should find some comfort and perspective through another Dickens novel, "A Tale of Two Cities." Here's part of the opening paragraph:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness."
As so it is, indeed.
Larson is a veteran Southern California radio/television personality and media consultant. He can be heard daily in San Diego on KCBQ 1170AM from 6 to 9 a.m. and on KPRZ 1210AM from 2 to 4 p.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Published, April 2012