Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Free Cat Food And Other Tasty Merits

I got this badge when I was about eleven. I can't remember what it was for but I suspect it was when I single-handedly stormed the beaches of Normandy.

I swear if there is a greater word in the English language than the word "merit" I don't know what it is. Just the sound of it and you think of other great words like: rewards, prizes, kudos, money, advantages, beer, recognition, privilege, honor, pizza, beer, candy, gold stars, fame – a life suddenly made better than what it was before.

Like, open the door and let me on this ride, right?

We merit free cat food when we buy ten 20 lb. bags of cat food at the local cat food store, even if we don't own a cat, and merit points when we use point cards with almost any purchase anywhere. And when we get merit rewards in return for our patronage this tucks us into bed at night with a cuddly sense of accomplishment.

We work hard and get Awards of Merit when we do something that others think is excellent. Some even get merit pay for performing well, merit commendations for pulling babies out of fires, mentions in the pages of publications or maybe even a day named in their honor (which would include a free pizza lunch if they're really lucky). People plan their whole careers around what merit points they will collect next, like a person hunched over a kitchen table with snubby-nosed scissors cutting out coupons from weekly shopping flyers.

Of course, all this began long before you and even I existed. They say the idea might have emanated from the legendary American Dream, the idea of which I hear grew out of Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches stories from the mid-1800's. His stories all centered around the theme, "by leading exemplary lives, struggling valiantly against poverty and adversity” anyone can gain both wealth and honor. At its core was a few basic messages: a) each of us is judged solely on our own merits, and b) we each have a fair opportunity to develop those merits. Some call this the Horatio Alger Myth because they believe that the ability for everyone to develop merits is affected by things like pedigree, race, gender, sexual orientation (or in my case the ugly factor) and those variables do play an appreciable role in how our actions are appraised. But I remain hopeful that, with good people, we'll make it right. Until then I try to remember what my mother used to suggest as I went out the back door in the morning: Do the best you can.

It's interesting to note that when we help others, or when we're kind, or we do great work, or choose to lead exemplary lives, or perform well, it's not always to get something back. Sometimes we're just doing what we probably would have done anyway. For the joy of it.
“Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in” ~ Mark Twain

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