To escape the news recently, I’ve been immersing myself in 19th Century novels, and one theme keeps coming across: the destructive human obsession with social status.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, Prince Andrew Bolkonski, infatuated with dreams of glory, leaves his young pregnant wife and family to join the military. As he charges into a poorly-planned battle, he thinks:
I don’t know what will happen and don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this – want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that. Yes, for that alone! I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God! What am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s esteem? Death, wounds, the loss of family—I fear nothing. And precious and dear as many persons are to me—father, sister, wife—those dearest to me—yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here, he thought, as he listened to voices in [the commander-in-chief’s] courtyard.
Prince Andrew seizes the opportunity to play the hero when it comes along. But he is soon struck down, and, not sure what has happened, finds himself falling.
Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. … How was it I did not see that lofty sky before?” he wonders. “And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…
At some level we all seek glory – and its reality is almost always disappointing.
This toxic form of human striving has arguably spread more widely over the years, even as living standards have risen so our actual needs are far less. As Alain de Botton explains in his book Status Anxiety, the introduction of a democratic ethos in recent centuries brought with it a growing belief in inherent human equality. No longer are some people “by nature free and others by nature slaves,” as Aristotle wrote. Now we are all free, goes the theory, and equally entitled to compete for, and to achieve, ever-higher levels of success. If we haven’t succeeded, well, it’s our own damn fault.
Modern culture thrives on this notion. Capitalism is based on making people believe that for happiness and success, they need and therefore should buy more and more things, the vast majority of which are unnecessary and often harmful. (Think junk food, McMansions & gas-guzzling cars.) It’s how our economy works: people are employed to make things we don’t really need and to figure out ways to make us believe we want them anyway. That’s also why a lot of people are unhappy in their jobs, because when they stop to think about it, they realize they’re not contributing something constructive, but instead may be encouraging people to waste their money, time and energy, and help destroy the planet in the process.
I realize I’m painting a pretty grim and one-sided picture. Lots of people provide important services to the world, like teaching, health care, nourishing food, or safe and efficient homes. But it’s also true that many of us get so caught up in wanting to prove our worth within our given social and economic systems that we rarely stop to think about what we truly value, and what we’re really trying to prove.
That’s a really important antidote to all this. When we find ourselves envying other people, for example, or feeling like a failure in comparison, we can ask ourselves, what’s important to me? What do I really want to do, and what’s important about that? Is it something I truly value, or something I think will impress others? And am I so focused on winning admiration from strangers that I can’t even see the sky?
Of course, sometimes we’re so confused by the whirlwind around us that it’s hard to know what’s important. Paying attention to what we envy can provide a clue. If I’m envying a friend or acquaintance for something I believe they have that I don’t, what is it about that thing that I want? Perhaps it’s a means of self-expression, or connection with others. It’s usually something deeper than we at first imagine.
Much of our focus on the superficial exterior comes down to a nagging desire to define ourselves, to see ourselves as a fixed entity capable of definition, which occupies a particular rung on the status ladder. But in fact, neither the ladder nor our “selves” exist in the way we think — as solid, independent entities, separate from our conceptions of them. As psychologist Rick Hanson writes in his book Buddha’s Brain, the self is like a unicorn – it’s not an independently existing thing, but merely patterns in the mind and brain. It’s “continually constructed, deconstructed and constructed again.” Nothing solid about it.
By recognizing this, we can begin to experience some freedom. Seeing that our sense of self is based on our upbringing, our culture, our experiences, and the people around us, we begin to recognize how elusive the “self” really is. We can begin to see our “self” more as a tool and a process, as the Insight meditation teacher Heather Sundberg puts it, than as a fixed entity.
And it is only by letting go of that constant need to define, represent, compare and judge ourselves that we can truly relax and be ourselves – whoever that may be at any given moment.