As I have worked in counseling and spiritual formation with women over the last 10 years, I have observed a particular attitude that it has taken me ten years to wrap my mind around and articulate what it is I am seeing. It finally all came together this past week as I was working with a particularly difficult young lady with whom I have worked for a while. She is very bright, an eager learner, but very much a rule breaker….any rule, every rule, every time. Not always willfully and intentionally, but with laissez faire attitude of “I’ll ask forgiveness (if necessary later because of getting caught) instead of permission” for anything that is not clear cut and hammered in stone. I have dubbed this attitude that I have observed:
Exceptionalist Entitlement Attitude
Allow me to provide some setup to explain what this is and how it came to be clarified for me.
A BIBLICAL CONTEXT
In the Scriptures there are references to a “dainty”, a temptation that is used that has great appeal to one’s appetite, whatever that appetite is. Satan is very adept at discerning our appetites and setting before us “dainties” that tempt us with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. God provides a warning several times. The Psalmist David, in praying to be delivered from the ways of “men that work iniquity,” cries, “Let me not eat of their dainties” (Psalms 141:4). In other words, don’t let me take their bait.
The man who sitteth “to eat with a ruler” (Proverbs 23:1-3) is counseled, “If thou be a man given to appetite, be not desirous of his dainties; seeing they are deceitful food”. One can compare this also to John’s words in the woes upon Babylon (Revelation 18:14), “All things that were dainties and sumptuous are perished from thee.”
Such dainties seem to be naturally associated in the realm of the flesh with kings’ tables and with the lives of those who are lovers of pleasure and luxury. By their associations and their softening effects such dainties are to be abstained from or indulged in moderately as “deceitful food” by those who would live the simple and righteous life which wisdom sanctions. The book of Daniel is a case of a wise young man who rejects the king’s “dainties”…the rich foods of the palace and remains firm in his commitment to eat according to God’s rules for him, this in a literal and physical sense, but it is equally evident in a figurative and spiritual sense.
Such dainties are also “offered not from genuine hospitality, but with some by-ends.” Satan puts it before us to see what we will do with it.
One is also counseled to shun the dainties of the niggard (Proverbs 23:6, one who is stingy), who counts the cost (Proverbs 23:7) of every morsel that his guest eats, for there may well be a demand for some favor in return in the future.
A CASE MADE WITH ONE STUDENT
The particular case that I encountered that led me to this epiphany had to do with this young woman’s delight in knowledge.
She asked me how to spell a word. In doing so I referenced the grammar rule: i before e except after c or when sounding like ‘a’ as in neighbor or weigh. It is a simple mnemonic ‘rule of thumb’ for English spelling. If one is unsure whether a word is spelled with the sequence ei or ie, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ie unless the preceding letter is c, in which case it is ei. It doesn’t always apply, but if you don’t know how to spell something, it’s a good starting point. As I discovered in my research, Wikipedia notes that “the rule is very well known; Edward Carney calls it “this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule”. However, the short form quoted above has many common exceptions; for example:
ie after c: species, science, society, sufficient
ei not preceded by c: seize, weird, vein, their, foreign, feisty, heist
Many more exceptions are observable.
Some authorities deprecate the rule as having too many exceptions to be worth learning.”
When I recited the rule to help her with the spelling, she said, “Huh, I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule. Do you know any?” Not being in the mood for word games at the moment, I said, “Yes, there are, I’m sure, but I can’t think of any right now.”
I might as well have thrown down a gauntlet of challenge for her. She called me later that evening, actually as I was going to bed, to tell me she had discovered an exception…..”proficient”, a word which a friend had used in helping type a resume for her. I said, “You called me to tell me you found an exception to the i-before-e rule?” She was very proud of herself for having found it and wanted me to know she had done so.
This bothered me all weekend, that she found such delight in an exception to a rule, one which is actually no more than a general rule of thumb and one which has many exceptions. I could not shake the way that she had responded with such challenge and delight. I asked her about it a few days later. She said she had intentionally set about to discover an exception and when she found one, she actually was delighted. I told her about other exceptions that are very common and which should have come to mind for her if she was that committed to discovering an exception- “science”, in particular, as that is her field of study.
I asked her, “What do you do with such knowledge you glean?” I knew from others around her and my own experience with her what she does….she shows it off…..like a master in the game of Trivia. She tells everyone about it. I suggested to her that one should, at times, use care with how she displays her “knowledge” , it annoys others and can make you look foolish, too.
I reminded her, too, that something like a grammar rule is not the same as rules in science or law or social contexts. I asked if she knew what a “Rule of Thumb” is and she immediately said it has to do with the size of a stick a husband can use to beat his wife. References to such a law exist; however, no documentation of an actual law has ever been located in historical research, although it is alleged to have dated back to an old English law. This use is a fairly recent interpretation that has been borne by feminists over the last century as having arisen out of an English law and as evidence of the chauvinism of the law. Now, my young student said such a law exists in Alabama where she is from. And, if laws in Alabama or elsewhere have arisen through assumed reference to an alleged English law, they are, fortunately, resting on weak precedent. This is essentially a Snopes myth that arose and has no sound truth in reality.
It is, however, according to several sources, an allusion to the fact that the first joint of an adult thumb measures roughly one inch, literally a rule (or ruler) of thumb. Since human physical dimensions vary, any measurement taken by so crude a means would be only a rough approximation and would not be trustworthy for precision work requirements. Therefore, a rule of thumb is an informal principle that is intended to provide general guidance rather than precise direction. While it was once used to reference a rough physical measurement, the term has evolved to apply to any kind of broadly applicable and imprecise rule. It’s not expected that a rule of thumb will always provide the correct answer. The earliest documented use is in this sense is in J. Durham’s Heaven upon Earth (1685): “Many professed Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb.”
Patricia A. Turner, a University of California at Davis folklorist, understands how a falsehood can acquire the mantle of truth. Turner acknowledges that it is “very sloppy for an academic to pass on misinformation.” Once a theory such as the inaccurate history of the “rule of thumb” has been debunked, it can backfire on those promoting it, she says. “If someone has read it who knows it is false, everything gets discredited on that level. So based on one falsehood, a whole history can be challenged.”
This last statement by Ms. Turner suddenly triggered recognition for me that this young lady and others whom I have counseled in recovery use a similar thought process to dismiss a rule or boundary….if it has ever had an exception, can have an exception, or fairness dictates that is should have an exception, then I will claim the exception and thereby totally negate the validity of the rule. Just about the only rules, laws, or guidelines that can’t be busted this way are physical laws like the Law of Gravity or the Law of Thermodynamics. Everything else they can dismiss because of the possibility of an exception……and in their way of thinking, they personify the exception and will attempt to convince everyone else that it is so.
It was my desire to understand the way this young lady thinks and how she has managed to justify her life’s pattern of rule-breaking, boundary-busting, and exception-claiming through such finely honed skills as lying, manipulating, hiding the truth, and arguing with a signpost that suddenly caused this to click in my brain. I could see the phenomenon not only in her, but in several other women I had unsuccessfully counseled in our ministry in the past and I now had a name for it:
Exceptionalist Entitlement Attitude- an attitude that, because an exception exists, the rule does not apply at all, in any circumstances and should be null and void. It fosters dismissal and defiance of rules. It causes one to consider herself the exception to every rule and attempt to prove to everyone that fact. It is a mindset that can miss the reality that consequences for violations of rules can and will likely ensue. In other words, “The rule doesn’t apply to me. No, really. It doesn’t apply to me.”
When I sat with her a few days later to discuss this observation, she suddenly got quiet and said, “I know where that comes from.” She is from a family of lawyers. She said she was raised sitting around on Sunday afternoons listening to them discuss various cases and how to defend against charges, how to “get people off.” She learned to think like a legalist. It is a mindset that is intently focused on the letter of the law, precedents, and omissions and dismisses any regard for the spirit of the law. There is always a loophole to be found for such people. And if caught red handed, it is always the fault of the rule itself or someone else who had circumvented the rule somehow or who told them that it didn’t matter or didn’t tell them that a slight variation was still a violation.
ANOTHER BIBLICAL EXAMPLE
I would return here to satan’s “dainty” and its role in this. There is a biblical comparison of two favored individuals, anointed men of God’s choosing for greatness. One chose to indulge in satan’s “dainty” and one did not. Both were youngest and favorite sons who were gifted by God and called by God for specific leadership.
David- A favored son, anointed as a youth to succeed King Saul. Taken into the king’s home, where he lived a privileged life. Then he encountered problems with Saul, his benefactor and predecessor, but rose to the challenge and acted honorably. David continued to do so, until a “choice dainty” was placed before him at a time when he should have been with his troops, but instead was indulging in a king’s prerogative to remain at home and send others to do the work. Bathsheba had little choice but to submit to the king. David’s indulgence in this “dainty” offered as a temptation that appealed to a lustful appetite in him – which he chose to indulge – led to Uriah’s murder, a baby’s death, God’s pronouncement of a reign for David filled with war and violence and treason even among and by his own children, and denial of the privilege of building the temple. An secret, impulsive and seemingly irrelevant violation of a rule by a king, who could have whatever he wanted, that didn’t seem important at the time had far reaching and disastrous consequences.
Joseph- also a favored youngest son whose favor annoyed his brothers and led them to sell him into slavery and tell their father he’d been killed. Joseph was taken into a well-provisioned home and had favor. But when he resisted a woman’s lustful desires, he was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. He continued to use the gift of interpreting dreams that had incited his brothers while sitting among the men in prison and eventually he was called to do it with Pharoah. That led to him having a place of trust and responsibility over the nation’s resources which came in handy when his brothers came seeking food. He was able to maneuver them into bringing the whole family. He revealed his identity and was able to provide safety, provision, and a promising future for the Hebrew people. It was 14 years later, when his father, Jacob, died in Egypt that the brothers feared that Joseph would finally take his revenge. But Joseph, did not take satan’s “dainty”, even then. His reply was, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
Joseph was revered among the Hebrews and when they left Egypt 400 years later, his bones were taken with them to the permanent place of burial in their home. Joseph lived honorably and did not yield to indulge in the “dainties” set before him. David did not. There is a price to pay for indulging in the enemy’s dainties, for taking the bait. And though David is honored, his failings and the consequences are well known.
As she and I have talked about the way she delights in the bits of trivial knowledge that she gathers and how she uses them to argue with or show up others or to attempt justification for defiance of rules and how it delights something in her – competitive spirit, need for attention, enhancing low self-esteem, etc. …..she has acknowledged that this attitude has not served her well in the long run in interpersonal relationships, in contacts with authorities, in jobs, and other settings. About the only place it does work is in a classroom and then only if one has a teacher patient enough, kind enough, and skilled enough to direct this into a more constructive way of pursuing and using knowledge.
We cannot begin to address dysfunctional ways of thinking until we can see them. I think we have finally come to see and can now address this issue in her life. But I also have seen this as a general type of personality that has come through our life recovery before. The ones who insisted on their entitlement to be the exception to any rule never succeeded. They inevitably were removed from the program. It was not so much associated with any particular mental health challenge- bipolar, personality disorder, PTSD, anxiety, or depression. In fact, I have observed women with each of these diagnoses, or no mental health diagnosis at all, display this attitude. Whether it is associated primarily with low self-esteem as a compensating defense mechanism or is part of a narcissistic personality, I don’t know. But I can say that, now that I have been able to articulate what I have observed in the past but been unable to articulate well in my frustration with trying to address the persistence of rule-breaking behavior, this particular young lady has been the most open to receiving this word and desiring to address it. Whether this is something that I will be able to use with others in the future remains to be seen. I have talked to two of my friends about it in the last two days and the look on their faces was almost exactly what I saw on my student’s face….a look of sudden recognition…as each of these friends said, “I know someone like that!” I think we all probably know someone like that. A process addiction, like a way of thinking that is life-limiting and dysfunctional, is every bit as destructive as any other addiction. The question is, will they insist on continuing in that way of thinking or be open to learning how to think and live differently?