Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Can & Can't Be Earned

There are things we can earn and things we can’t. When we confuse the two we suffer: we behave with entitlement where we need to take responsibility; we engage in exhausting, ineffective and endless trying that can lead to despair.

This may seem self-evident, but I can truthfully say that a great deal of the suffering I have experienced or contributed to in this life is rooted in confusion about this simple truth.

We can and often do earn money, respect and trust.

Money is easiest in the sense that it is quantifiable and amenable to mutual agreement. Of course there are questions of clarity and fairness and honouring agreements etc. But the fact remains that money (or other forms of concrete barter) is something that can and often is earned.

Respect is a little more complicated. We earn respect primarily by being respectful. No guarantees there, but on the whole those who feel respected by us will respond in kind. And where they don’t in a big and consistent way, it’s probably best to take ourselves out of the vicinity if we can at least in the short term. Earning another’s respect, of course, starts with living and seeing ourselves in a way that cultivates self-respect. Respect is one of those things that adheres to the adage- We often teach others how to treat us.

Trust is trickier than respect, because it tends to develop over time and be effected by previous experience. It can take a long time for someone who was abused to trust another. If we want someone’s trust we can, to some degree earn it by being honest and consistent (and honest about where and when we must be inconsistent.) I’ve noticed that in fact most people are consistent- even if their consistency is in being inconsistent and/or dishonest. Another adage with some truth- People usually show us who they are from the start. Pay attention and trust what they are showing you.

But then there are the things we can’t earn. We can’t earn love. And we all want to be loved.

To borrow from Martin Buber’s observation about the word God, love is an over-burdened word. It can show up in a variety of ways but always, on some level, to be loved includes a sense of being seen and accepted, cherished and valued just for being ourselves.

If we try to earn the un-earnable, we will suffer, because it is simply not possible. Oh someone may appreciate our generosity and caring, may admire our efforts and value our contributions. But love- being seen and cherished for being- is not earned.

I know this because I grew up in a household that taught me to believe otherwise. It’s a hard belief to break. Teaching a child that every expression or feeling of being loved must be earned anew each day is based on the notion that we are not- each of us- worthy of love just because we are and not because of how useful we could be to another, or how well we can adhere to someone else’s sense of who we should be.

The belief that we must (and can) earn love, is a lie that creates tremendous suffering.

We can’t earn love. We never could. Knowing this, keeping it in conscious awareness, we are blessed to freely love and be loved.

Oriah House (c) 2013 


  1. Oriah, I was taught like you that I had to earn love. Very rarely I could achieve a "success", and it is only recently that I could dissolve this experience and conviction. I share this incredibly exhausting experience with you. Big hug!

    1. Nora, I remember the moment when I first realized that it was not working (trying to earn love) not because I wasn't trying hard enough or dancing fast enough but because it was NOT POSSIBLE! What freedom that brought- although staying conscious and stopping when I fall into that old pattern takes more of an on-going awareness :-)

  2. Love this....thank you for this insight

  3. My darling late husband loved me totally for everything that I was and was not. He passed away seven months ago and I have been trying so hard to feel that same accepting love for myself.
    In that way I will still have him. It's very hard.

    1. How you must miss him. What a gift he gave to you- and yes, may you learn to see your worth and beauty just as you are, as he saw you. What a blessings to be loved like that (and then of course, how hard is the loss of his daily physical presence.) Sending prayers for a easing of your heart, Oriah