BBC Radio 4:Rhidian Brook - 29/04/16

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Good Morning,

When the writer of Luke’s gospel says ‘a worker deserves their wages,’ he doesn’t make a distinction between different types of work, and doesn’t give us clues as to the size of the pay packet. He merely leaves us with the pragmatic wisdom that if you do the work you get paid. Few people I know would dispute that.

Many workers – no matter what they do - would also say they’re worth every penny they’re paid (perhaps more). This too is a commonly expressed belief that’s hard to challenge. But a new book by economist Robert Frank makes the observation that the more successful a person the more keenly they feel a sense of being worth every penny, and the less likely they are to attribute their success to other factors, such as birth or environment, or that arbitrary force some call luck.

This inclination is demonstrated in the Cookie Monster Experiment conducted by psychologists at Berkeley University in which they divide people into groups of three and arbitrarily appoint a leader. The group is given a task and half way through a surprise plate of cookies is put on the table. Everyone takes a cookie but there is always one left. In over half the cases the randomly appointed leader takes the last cookie. Why? Because they deserve it of course.

Thinking we deserve the extra cookie because of our own merits and ignoring the other things that got us there goes deep. A successful film producer once said ‘The harder I work the luckier I get,’ pointing to the reasonable connection between effort and reward; but what happens when we work hard, have all the skills, and we don’t get the reward? Is it just a case of ‘tough cookie?’

When a person attributes their success solely to their own efforts it can be problematic for them as well as others. Firstly it’s a kind of delusion. Anyone who has experienced success has someone else to thank: their colleagues, the stars, their God. When Lenny Henry spoke to some prisoners recently, he was quick to thank his mum. He himself had been a clipped ear away from a life behind bars. This ‘but-for-the-grace-of-God’ gratitude is important for it both debunks the self-made delusion whilst giving us a more realistic measure of our worth.

In a winner-takes-all, I’m-worth-it society perhaps grace is a more generous and secure thing to live by than luck. Where luck really is random and impersonal, grace is purposeful and relational. Grace initiates but doesn’t dominate. It has room for the hard working success story as well as the hard working failure and it shows us the fine, almost invisible, line between them. And knowing that our good fortune – or our worth - comes from something other than just our own efforts probably makes us more inclined to share the cookies.