I fell over the other day. It was both bewildering and embarrassing at the same time. I somehow tripped on a curb while crossing a road. It left me winded and bruised, but otherwise OK—except for the nagging suspicion that it was karma. Only a few days earlier I had been giving someone a hard time for not using a walking cane, and here I was obviously in need of one myself. The trouble is, the whole idea of using a support of any kind comes with baggage.
The stick we use to support ourselves when we are injured is a crutch, and there is nothing negative about that, except that the same word has been frequently used to castigate people who have other human failings. If someone abuses alcohol, for example, we say they are using it as a psychological crutch. When an unemployed person depends on money from friends or family, we might say they are using that support as a crutch instead of looking for work.
We sometimes forget, though, that we are using a metaphor. It’s a figurative means of explaining a complex situation, and it is only obliquely related to an actual crutch. Using a crutch when you have a broken ankle is the smart thing to do. It’s not an indication of a personal moral failing.
My friend and I are reluctant to use a walking cane for lots of reasons. They are a nuisance to hold when you are not walking because there is nowhere to put them. They get in the way of someone walking beside you, and they necessarily leave you with only one hand to do everything else. Also, sometimes my friend thinks that by using a cane she is showing a personal weakness. She is a strong woman in every sense of the word; capable, intelligent, and energetic. If she used a cane more often when she went out walking she would walk further and feel less physical stress, but she would rather not use it. She is afraid it might become a liquor-as-psychological-support type of crutch, not the support-for-a-broken-ankle type of crutch.
In thinking about this, it occurred to me that there is another word that has become tainted by its metaphorical use; the word “entitlement.” If we are entitled to something, it is our due. If I pay for admission to a museum, I am entitled to enter. If I pay into a pension plan, I am entitled to receive a pension. This is an entitlement. A few months ago, however, I got a bit cranky during a family discussion about politics when someone sneered about “entitlements” as though they were a bad thing. I suggested that we all stop using the word, since it now came with all sorts of interpretations it didn’t deserve.
When I was a college instructor, we occasionally grumbled about students who had an air of entitlement. What we meant was that some students were lazy about doing the work but thought they should pass our courses anyway since they (or their parents) had paid for them. The students felt they were “entitled” to an academic qualification, whereas the faculty felt it was something to be earned.
I recently watched a documentary about Duke University basketball players in which the whole university was characterized as being for wealthy students with a sense of entitlement. Even though the commentary explained that this was a misrepresentation, the use of the word “entitlement” was repeated several times to explain why the team was so disliked.
Over the years, we have used “entitlement” as a pejorative term so often we have lost sight of its usefulness as an affirmative descriptor of something to which we are genuinely eligible, like social services and civic infrastructure that we have paid for through our taxes. There is no shame in claiming the things to which we are entitled—but we are sometimes made to feel like a burden for doing so.
Similarly, there is no shame in using a support when out walking—unless you tell yourself you are somehow weaker because of it. We are entitled to our crutches! Let’s just figure out how to make the supports we need less of a nuisance, and let’s figure out how to make people proud to claim their entitlements.
Image source: http://believeinplace.com/2014/02/27/thursday-reflection-tripping-over-being-right/