Deserve vs. Earn


Read the various periodicals on the net, and you’ll find the words earndeserveand merit listed as interchangeable. Various periodicals conflate these three words so often that they might be some of the few words, in the usage war of words, that the prescriptive dictionaries (1) and the descriptive dictionaries (2) agree upon. Read those blogs that make a serious attempt at getting the definitions correct, and the reader will find that if the writer does not consider these three words synonyms, they consider them derivatives of one another.

This casual, but curious, observer of language would not go so far to write that any of those authors are incorrect, but in the lexicon of the common man the words ‘deserve’ and ‘earn’ have grown so far apart as to be almost antonyms. When the office worker speaks of deserving a raise, even those that know the standard measurements of the company would not bring up the word earn, for fear that doing do might spark a confrontation that would forever alter the relationship. When the sports fan speaks of his team deserving a championship, it is only his antagonists that will mention the fact that they haven’t earned it yet, and when the lovelorn and politicians speak of the deserving, it is an emotional appeal that cannot be countered without one doing some damage to their public perception. In all walks of life deserve is used as a word to describe that which one is entitled to, as if by birthright, and merit has become the exclusive right of the word earn.

The definition of deserve, in the lexicon of the common man at the proverbial water cooler, has regressed to the succinct definition: “To have, or display, qualities that should result in one attaining rewards by natural means.” In this sense, deserve has come to be something of an adjective to describe those that should attain, and earn is more a verb to describe the hard work put into attaining a goal. Deserve is also a term used by those that feel they are owed something by being a good person, a human, or a human being that is alive.

All philosophical differences aside, this causal, but curious, observer can’t help but think that those that invest full emotions in this idea of being a deserving person, at the expense of earning, set themselves up for failure, heartache, and even diminished mental health when the reality of their circumstances continues to dispel their notions. One would think that, at some point, the confused would take a step back and provide the situation a reexamination steeped in rational objectivity, but for most that’s easier said than done, as it could lead them to believe that they’re a lot less deserving than they once believed.

Love is difficult to calculate by standard measurements of course, and past behaviors do not dictate future success. As such, no single person should ever say that they deserve to be loved, but it’s not something one can earn entirely by merit either. Love, we could say, is a complicated algorithm fraught with failure that begins with simple, intangible superficialities. These superficialities can be as simple as the way a person comes their hair, their scent, the clothes they wear, the way they smile when they see you coming down the aisle at Cracker Barrel, and all of the other, otherwise meaningless intangibles that form superficial attraction. Some could argue that the superficial nature of the early stages of love is nothing more than a crush, but a crush forms the fundamental layer of all that will spring from it. Love gains meaning as it progresses into shared values, complicated ideas, and philosophies, until it eventuates from that initial, superficial attraction into the ultimate, comprehensive decision we make about another person called love. We earn love every day thereafter by maintaining the conditions that the other party lays out for us in either overt or implicit ways to form adult, conditional love.

“You think you should be afforded love simply by being?” I would ask the deserving person. “Do you think that you should be able to walk up to a total stranger on the street and inform them that you are a good person, and therefore deserving of love, and that they should do their civic duty, as a good citizen of the world, and love you? If that’s what you think, you’ll get the type of love you deserve.” 

The point is that by being deserving the individual opens up a whole can of why, for those that are asked to believe it. ‘Why do I deserve,’ should be the first question a person asks themselves, and ‘why am I more deserving than anyone else’ should be the next, and all of the answers should culminate in self-evident facts and figures that result in the definitions of the words ‘merit’ and ‘earn’.

High-minded types would tell their audience that love is nothing more than a complex mixture of chemicals in the brain, and they do so under the theoretical umbrella of a human being no more complex than, say, the penguin. They would suggest that certain animals, like some penguins, have long-term, monogamous relationships based on decision-making. If our decision making abilities are no more complex than the penguin’s, and our drive to be loved, and love, is nothing more than a natural and primal need to procreate, then all humans do deserve to be loved by the primal, prospective mate that senses when we’re in heat. Alternatively, if the human’s senses are so inferior to the penguin’s that prospects can’t tell when we deserve love, we may want to develop a mating call that informs prospective mates when we feel ‘deserving’ to see what comes running down the alley to us.

Most of us prefer to believe that we earn the love we receive on a perpetual basis, a love that is more complex than the penguins, and that it progresses based on the variables that we introduce to it on a day-to-day basis. If we settle on this primal, penguin definition of love, and we choose to believe that the love we earn should be nonjudgmental, and lacking in morals and values, and nothing more than a stick that stirs the chemicals in our brain, the love we get will be as meaningless as the penguins’, and what we deserve.

  • (1) Prescriptive dictionaries are concerned with the formal, or correct, usage of words.
  • (2) Descriptive dictionaries are concerned with how language is being used in a more casual, less formal manner.
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