Our internal balance sheet

Sherbrooke forest

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

George Orwell, Animal Farm

We all know people who bestride the world with an exaggerated sense of entitlement, as if they’re somehow special and the world owes them something. Others seem to be apologetic for their very existence, anxiously striving to ‘make up’ for the fact they were born and are still around. Whether we have a positive balance sheet (the world owes me, and I’m simply calling in the remuneration I’m entitled to) or a negative one (I guess it’s okay I’m here, as long as I’m conscientious about continually ‘paying off’ my original debt) depends on a complex interaction between the societal values we grew up with, our family environment, our life experiences and personality. For example, if you’re born a princess, or the only child of a dictator, you might feel yourself entitled to wealth, respect, marriage to someone equally exalted, and so on. On the other hand, if you’re born into poor circumstances, such as an indentured family still caught in a debt from three generations ago, you might consider yourself lucky if sometimes you don’t go to bed hungry.

On a more subtle, but no less powerful level, perhaps you grew up in an environment where your life was considered precious, and you feel blessed just to be alive. Or your cultural upbringing might have taught you we’re all miserable sinners, and that you have to constantly strive and work hard to atone for the fact you were born. Your culture might be individualistic, or more communally orientated. To add to the complexity, nowadays most of us are influenced by a wide range of cultures – our culture of origin, the one we live in now, the cultures of our friends and partners, cultures we see on TV etc, beliefs and values we’ve chosen for ourselves…

In fact, this is an area where our beliefs do not always match our values. We might hold a value that everyone is equal, but live as if we deserve more than others, or else as if the needs of others should always be put ahead of our own. Usually, we’re not even conscious of having an internal balance sheet, yet our deeply-ingrained beliefs about this can greatly influence the way we live our lives. It seems difficult for us to live with a neutral balance sheet – we tend to swing towards one end or the other. As George Orwell pointed out, we are all equal, but some of us inevitably feel, or are seen to be, more equal than others. Child-rearing practices are a good example, which can go from ‘children should be seen but not heard’ to a young generation where everyone is so often told they’re ‘special’, doctors are now talking about a concerning increase in narcissistic behaviours.

A good meditation for exploring this is the metta, or loving kindness, meditation. Metta starts by extending kindness first to ourselves, then to our friends, then neutral persons, and finally to people we find difficult. In metta meditation, we don’t say ‘may everyone be happy except for me’, or ‘may I be happy, forget about everyone else’. Metta meditation is a great equaliser, which over time can illuminate some of the core beliefs we hold about our place in the world. It is very popular, and we will explore it in more detail in next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

If you have a sense of your internal balance sheet, is it the one you want to have? If not, what would it look like to live with one you’d prefer? How would you know the difference?

Anja Tanhane