Losing My Sense of Entitlement


I spent eleven years (1974-1985) living and working at a place called Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia, where I served as Dean of Studies. Pendle Hill is a Quaker living-learning community—founded in 1930 and going strong to this day—where some 80 people share a daily round of classes, communal meals, physical work, silent worship, communal decision-making, outreach to the larger world, etc.
When signed on at Pendle Hill, I was 35 years old, married with three children, and I had a Ph.D. from Berkeley. But as Dean of Studies, I made the same base salary as everyone else who worked there—including the 18 year-old who worked in the garden or the shop for a year or two while seeking a post-high school direction in life. In those days, that meant $4,000 per year, plus room and board.
Like all members of the community, I had a daily job related to the communal meals—washing dishes after lunch. As Dean of Studies, I had to be off campus every now and then to raise money, or give a talk, or meet with potential partners. But that did not alter the fact that every time I needed to be absent at lunchtime, I had to find someone to do my dishwashing job for me. Then, once I got back, I had to repay that person by doing his or her job as well as my own for as many days as I had been gone.
I am a white male who was raised in an affluent Chicago suburb and had the privilege of studying at some of the best institutions of higher education in the country. That, to say the obvious, is a recipe for a sense of entitlement, a sense that I have a right to special privileges and perks. I will not claim that I am totally free of that kind of arrogance, but I emerged from eleven years at Pendle Hill with a lot less of it than I would otherwise have had.
To put it positively, the equality practiced at Pendle Hill helped me see more clearly and appreciate more deeply the gifts that people bring to making things work—and those gifts have nothing to do with title, income or status. I saw problem-solvers shine in community meetings; saw folks with intelligent hands fix machines that I thought were beyond repair; saw people with empathy and insight help heal those who were wounded; saw men and women with the courage to speak truth to power in the larger world.
I took and taught a lot of classes at Pendle Hill, I read a lot of good books, and I talked with a lot of good people. But my greatest lesson came from the “hidden curriculum” of radical equality when it came to rewards and responsibilities. I now know that a sense of entitlement is a terrible form of self-imprisonment: I am grateful to Pendle Hill for helping me realize that the door to my cell is unlocked.